by Holly Griffith
Arizona Repertory Theatre’s most recent production, Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, upholds a level of professionalism common at the University of Arizona. The production is seamless and consistent, true to the story, and well-acted. Directed by Hank Stratton, the play follows the orphaned Billy, who lives with his adoptive aunts on the island of Inishmaan off the West coast of Ireland. Walking with a “shuffle” and a disfigured arm, Billy yearns to escape the constant ridicule of his community and formulates a plan to leave the island. The play has all the signature elements of Irish drama–quick wit, mystery, dark humor, and colorful family dynamics.
The company is unshakably gelled. All the actors inhabit the same world, and there is a consistency of rhythm and intensity between scenes. Dylan Cotter’s performance as Billy is nuanced and heart-wrenching. We feel his pain, hope for his triumph, but see a darker side when he manipulates his friends and caretakers. Elana Richardson as Eileen, Billy’s aunt and caretaker, is also outstanding. She plays the role with a strong backbone and a sharp wit. Eileen is a pillar of the play, unshakable in her dedication to Billy but simmering over a flame of maternal worry. This is a difficult balance to strike, and Richardson does it masterfully. Other outstanding performances include Rachel Franke as the delightfully profane Helen and Connor McKinley Griffin as Bartley, her clownish brother. Franke has a particularly tough job. Helen is simultaneously confident in her sexuality and traumatized by it. We learn early that she has been groped and harassed frequently by older men. In typical Irish fashion, she copes with her experiences using humor, but with Franke’s performance, we sense an undercurrent of anger.
The whole cast frames up McDonagh’s sharp humor with surprising skill. The quick-witted sarcasm, the dark comedy, and the incessant needling are all there. I laughed aloud often. Still, I felt there was room in Stratton’s direction to dial up the almost inhuman absurdity of some of the personalities in McDonagh’s play. Part of the irony of The Cripple of Inishmaan is that most of the characters are uglier, more disabled, and more grotesque than Billy. They all have “crutches” of one kind or another, they all have internal disfigurements and moral injuries. The flaws of these characters are larger-than-life and should balance on the edge of difficult-to-watch. Pateen Mike’s jovial cruelty, Babby Bobby’s brutal temper, Doctor McSharry’s misogyny, Helen’s unabashed naughtiness, Aunt Kate and Aunt Eileen’s quaking nervousness should make Billy’s world unbearably claustrophobic. These characters are rough. They are cruel. They are damaged. I’d like to see this cast do the play with a blazing intensity. Each actor already gives their character the proper flavor, but I wish Stratton had encouraged the cast to turn up the volume. I think this approach would pull the connective tissues of the play even tighter, making the funny moments funnier and the dark moments darker.
Still, this cast does a solid job with a difficult play, and the production elements all communicate with each other to paint a believable picture of humble, mid-century life in rural Ireland. Kevin Black’s dialect coaching is excellent. Actors sound consistent yet still individual, and the cadence of the dialect is rough enough to give us the flavor of the remote Aran Islands without sacrificing our ability to understand every word. Joe C. Clug’s scenic design effectively shows the drab interior of the Aunties’ store, designed to be quite literally rough around the edges. Gaby Nava’s costumes were perfectly Irish with hearty fabrics and muted colors, plus a bright magenta dress that popped on the promiscuous Helen.
Fans of dark comedy, poetry, and Irish storytelling won’t want to miss it!
The Cripple of Inishmaan runs at Arizona Repertory Theatre through December 2nd. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 7:30; Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 1:30. You can buy tickets online at theatre.arizona.edu or by calling 621-1162.
Editor’s Note: Holly Griffith an adjunct instructor in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television at the U of A. While she had no input or involvement with the creative process for this production nor is a professor to any of the students involved in this production, we feel it is important to disclose any potential biases.