Storytelling is the world’s oldest form of entertainment, and you will discover The Cripple of Inishmaan by playwright Martin McDonagh, to be quite an epic tale. Now playing until June 4, this dark comedy brings laughter, tragedy, and magic to the Palm Beach Dramaworks’ main stage.
Born to Irish parents, McDonagh’s writing is influenced by the folklore found in their social and cultural way of sharing stories. As a child, he remembers traveling to Ireland’s Aran Islands and being captivated by “the lunar quality, the remoteness, the wildness, the loneliness of it.” He sets his story on the remote island of Inishmaan, which is part of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, and follows in the tradition of Irish storytelling, using lyrical styles of speech and gestures that were peculiar to that region and time, circa 1934.
Under the expert direction of J. Barry Lewis, the story is a very simple one, but its message is no small thing. Love and kindness. “We know how to tell stories in America,” Lewis says. “Our storytelling sits at the core of a historical and fictional life, but the Irish are well known for spinning stories that are full of great characters, and creating lyrical devices through which these stories are told.” Here in the States, to look at the plight of a young man who’s physically challenged, and find humor at times, we call that a dark comedy. Lewis says, “When you have a lack of financial consideration and when life is hard, people have a tendency to turn their attention to the poetical. Irish turn to their music and to their language to address their status.”
Billy Claven, played brilliantly by actor Adam Petherbridge, is a young man who has been unfortunately impacted by physical abnormalities from birth. Feeling stuck in Inishmaan, he seeks to combat his loneliness, poverty, and the desire to break out from the everyday nature of his struggles. His life mirrors that of the island and its inhabitants—all 200 of them. Isolated, devoid of natural beauty, and anything that grows.
Historically, there’s a lot of working class struggles in this terrain. And in this work, McDonagh takes a real event and creates around it a series of fictitious characters. In 1931, American director Robert Flaherty traveled to the Aran Islands to film a documentary entitled “The Man of Aran,” about the islanders’ way of life in a land he reportedly described as “three naked wastes of rock off the western coast of Ireland.”
How unflattering, how unsavory, and yet McDonagh, like Flaherty, is captivated by telling a story of how the island’s inhabitants are affected by the arid conditions and isolated environment in which they live. But, unlike Flaherty’s serious docudrama, McDonagh inflicts humor in his storytelling by having one of his leading characters, Johnnypateenmike O’Dougal, [Colin McPhillabmy] the town’s charlatan, deliver the great news [the third piece of news of the day] that a Hollywood film is being made on the neighboring island of Inishmore.
The one person who wants to be in the film more than anybody is Cripple Billy, who dreams of sailing away to Inishmore. But, he is not the only one with dreams. The secret of Billy’s affection is Helen McCormick [Adelind Horan], a teenager who is very pretty and knows too well there may not be too many opportunities for her in this island. She schemes a plan to get Babbybobby Bennett [Jim Ballard] to take her in his boat to meet the director and get a part in the film. Now, for Helen, who’s gotten a lot of attention from a very early age, this is an easy task. But, not for Cripple Billy, a title he’s earned and can’t get others to change, not even his endearing aunts, Eileen and Kate Osbourne [Elizabeth Dimon and Laura Turnbull], who can’t seem to understand their nephew’s daily fascination with staring at cows for hours on end.
The playwright uses Billy’s interest in cows to show his sense of solitude and the peace they provide to this young man, who’s inwardly pestered by his own dark thoughts. Did his parents really love him? Is he an unloved orphan? Will Helen want anything with him—a broken man? There’s a scene that’s quite riveting and quite telling, when Babbybobby says to Billy, “I threw a brick at a cow and it didn’t even moo.” Meaning, these are just silly creatures. You can do what you want to them and they don’t mind. But Billy responds, “Well, that’s no evidence that’s quite all right with the cow,” which is Billy’s way of saying, you can’t judge by someone’s exterior by how they are feeling inside.
In a turn of events, Cripple Billy makes it not only to the island of Inishmore, but also to the United States, where he takes his hopes and dreams in his sleeve. Upon his return to the island, some of his questions are answered. And in an act of mercy, others are left untold.
The Cripple of Inishmaan becomes a portrayal of an unfair world marked by tragedy, love, and kindness, so comically told through the lyrical point of view of the traditional Irish storytelling. Bravo for a wonderful performance!
The play runs through June 4, 2017 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. If you are planning to attend, call (561) 514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.