Martin McDonagh’s plays are known for walking the line “between comedy and cruelty,” and this is certainly true in The Cripple of Inishmaan, a story where decent human beings are hardly anywhere to be found. Now playing at Antaeus Theatre Company’s Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center in Glendale, this 1997 play explores the effects of small town gossip, and what happens when people start to dream of lives bigger than the ones they’ve always known.
The story takes place in the tiny Aran Island community of Inishmaan in Galway Bay in 1934, a town full of quirky characters. Billy Claven (Matthew Grondin in the “Fripple Frapples” cast seen for this review), cruelly referred to by everyone in the town as “cripple Billy” because he was born disabled, has been raised by two sisters, Kate (Kitty Swink) and Eileen (Julia Fletcher) since his parents died mysteriously when he was a baby. Kate and Eileen run a small store on the island, and receive frequent visits from Johnnypateenmike (JD Cullum), the local busybody who enjoys trading “news” for food and goods—although nine times out of ten, his “news” is not particularly newsworthy. Johnnypateenmike lives with his snarky, alcoholic Mammy (Anne Gee Byrd), and he resents every day she manages to remain alive.
Billy spends his days watching cows and crushing on Slippy Helen (Abby Wilde), a mean-spirited, violent girl whose favorite pastimes include cracking eggs on the head of her dim-witted brother, Bartley (Joey Millin). One day, Johnnypateenmike delivers a bit of news that shocks everyone by being actually interesting—a Hollywood film crew is shooting a documentary in the nearby town of Inishmore. Helen convinces Babbybobby (Seamus Dever), a mopey man who has never gotten over his wife’s death from tuberculosis, to use his boat to take her and Bartley to see the filming. Desperate for adventure, Billy concocts a scheme to gain himself a spot on the field trip, even though no one thinks this is a good idea. But in the end, everyone is surprised by what happens when Billy meets the film crew, although in a town where misinformation runs rampant, it is hard to tell fact from fiction.
McDonagh’s characters are known for the shocking depths of their cruelty, although there are a few bright spots in this story. Kate and Eileen have good intentions, and even lowlife Johnnypateenmike makes at least one surprisingly selfless choice. Their treatment of Billy, which is perfectly exemplified by the constant mockery of his disability and lack of effort to call him simply Billy rather than Cripple Billy, as he repeatedly requests, is shameful and uncomfortable to watch. This entire play’s existence would surely elicit nothing but a giant cringe from the disabled community, and the fact that it takes place in the 1930s is not an excuse.
Directed by Steven Robman, McDonagh’s story has no shortage of twists, and the audience’s expectations are flipped at least twice in the second act. The first act is expertly paced, with jokes being tossed back and forth at a quick rate, but the final few scenes drag a bit. This type of dialogue is most effective as banter, and the moments left to marinate do not help to emphasize the points being made. The ensemble is terrific together, although not all of the Irish accents match up exactly.
Cullum is the highlight as Johnnypateenmike, talking a mile a minute and bringing delightful, vaguely evil energy to the ridiculous character. His scenes with Byrd are particularly hilarious, as he is both a chip off the old block and her tormentor. Byrd’s comedic timing in these moments is excellent, garnering some of the show’s biggest laughs for some of the most inconsequential jokes. The cast is completed by Phil Proctor as Dr. McSharry, who is responsible for the health of all of the misfits on the island.
The set (John Iacovelli) is most effective in the scenes that take place inside Kate and Eileen’s store, with some of the moments that take place outdoors feeling a bit underwhelming. McDonagh’s work is definitely not for everyone—it is a specific brand of humor that is often mean, and one of the character decisions in act two comes a bit out of left field, feeling unearned and included for the sake of shock value. But overall, this is a solid production that succeeds the most in its depiction of quirky small town life, accentuating how it takes all kinds of people to make up a community—even terrible ones.
The Cripple of Inishmaan runs at Antaeus Theatre Company’s Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center through March 11th. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission. Performances are Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. In keeping with Antaeus tradition, this production is partner-cast and the performers described in this review will not appear on all dates. For a cast schedule, click here. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased here.