Theatre Review: Eclipse’s Delightful Cripple of Inishmaan
Martin McDonagh’s Off-Broadway hit The Cripple of Inishmaan opened at Eclipse Theatre Company on Thursday in a lively production directed by Greg Smith.
The Cripple of Inishmaan takes place on its eponymous piece of Ireland’s Aran Islands in 1934 as Robert Flaherty and a Hollywood crew are filming Man of Aran on neighboring island Inishmore. Billy Claven (Jack Miller), a young man deformed at birth and raised by his Aunties Kate (Molley Collins) and Eileen (Kate Charlesworth-Miller), is determined to find a way to America to prove his worth to everyone in his little town and escape the nagging feeling he’s blamed for his parents’ suicide. Principally, Billy’s quest is to be known as “just Billy” instead of the universal “Cripple Billy.”
Equally ambitious is Helen McCormick (Madison Garvin Lee) with a plan to get to America on her guile and feminine wiles starting with the widower Babbybobby Bennett (Anthony Chaffin); less ambitious is Helen’s brother Bartley (Patrick Petrilla), obsessed with candies. Simultaneously a thorn in everyone’s side and the source of much-needed color in their hard-scrabble lives is town gossip Johnnypateen Mike (Jim McCullough) who takes his “duty” very seriously. The tight-knit community is rounded out by Johnnypateen’s Mammy O’Dougal (Cheryl Muller), speaking truth to power as she drinks herself to death, and the beleaguered town doctor, Dr. McSharry (Dan Griscom).
At its heart, the play is about the stories we tell ourselves to survive and the human need for self-determination and respect. We define ourselves through our own narratives and the narratives told about us. McDonagh’s text and Smith’s direction understand that everyone has their reasons, we all have a sense of what’s right and wiggle room to do what we have to do to both get ahead and look ourselves in the mirror.
Miller’s Billy’s remarkable talk about America carves out more agency than he had in the situation but he acknowledges more complicated truths. This is mirrored by Lee’s Helen who, when told the filmmakers she was trying to seduce were really “every sailor boy who could do an American accent,” shrugs and says, “You do get a good kiss from a sailor boy.” The remarkable dances on parallel tracks by these two actors are the twin fires that animate The Cripple of Inishmaan and they’re a delight to watch at every turn. The looks between Chaffin’s Babbybobby when Billy confesses he took advantage of Babbybobby’s greatest pain and Miller who knows he’s earned the beating coming to him are breathtaking.
This production accomplishes a rare balancing act: empathy for all its characters but letting none of them off the hook. It understands the core of warmth in Johnnypateen and the vital role he plays in the town’s function. McCullough always treats what could be an Irish “God forgive me saying this…” stereotype and plays every layer in the writing in his face and gestures.
If you have a taste for the rhythms of classic Irish storytelling, this production of The Cripple of Inishmaan is a must-see. Even for skeptics of the genre, this is a throbbing, wrigglingly alive look at a way of life ground out by progress (for good and ill) and impulses humans will always struggle with and wallow in on our short journey to the grave.
The Cripple of Inishmaan runs through March 26 with performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. For tickets and more info, visit eclipsetheatrecompany.org.