‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ captures hard-knock life, with humor, in Ireland
By John Monaghan, Detroit Free Press Special Writer
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Life is hard on Inishmaan, the middle of three craggy, windswept Aran Islands off Ireland’s west coast. It is even tougher for the title character of Martin McDonagh’s play “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” Born with a withered hand and a club foot, he is addressed almost exclusively in these pre-PC days by his nickname Cripple Billy.
The verbal slings and arrows suffered by Cripple Billy (David Sterritt) become somewhat easier to bear (at least for us) when they are inflicted so musically by his neighbors, folks with monikers like Babbybobby (Christopher Ellis) and Johnnypateenmike (Brent Griffith).
One of the many highlights in the new production at the Hilberry Theatre, Wayne State University’s graduate theater program, is the way its young cast wraps its collective tongue around what can be a linguistically challenging script. If you haven’t seen one of McDonagh’s plays, this is a fine introduction.
The first in a trio of plays set on the islands, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” is set in 1934, mostly in the shop behind which Cripple Billy and his aunties reside. Actually, they aren’t his relatives at all, but islanders who took the boy in when his parents died of mysterious circumstances not long after he was born.
The daily news comes from gossipy Johnnypateenmike, who hears that Hollywood documentarian Robert Flaherty is making a film, “The Man of Aran,” about the hardscrabble life on the islands. Cripple Billy says he wants to meet him, maybe even get a screen test, so he begs friend Babbybobby to take him along on a boat trip to the mainland.
Curtis Green’s set beautifully evokes the island with its backdrop of rough weathered stone. That’s not just any grouping of rocks above the stage, but a map of sorts in which tiny lights note where an individual scene is taking place.
The set serves as the interior for the island shop, where the aunts engage in random chatter interrupted only by Johnnypateenmike’s latest three pieces of news. Don’t ask him to tell the stories out of order or you may get nothing at all.
The gift of gab, what the Irish call craic, is at the heart of McDonagh’s award-winning plays. This love of language has obviously inspired Hilberry director Lavinia Hart and her young cast, all likely in their 20s, who successfully tackle characters ranging from teenagers to octogenarians.
Sterritt might be a little too cute to play Cripple Billy, but he captures the character’s relative wisdom and sadness as he attempts to woo the island’s resident spitfire Helen (Megan Dobbertin). Capped by a mane of flaming red hair, Helen has learned to kick anyone who even thinks they have the right to grope her.
Hart and company do right by the show’s offbeat humor, especially in scenes in which Helen’s addled younger brother Bartley (Joshua Blake Rippy) enters the shop looking for candy. His constant request for “sweeties” that the women don’t have becomes one of the show’s best running gags.
At nearly 2 1/2 hours (with intermission), “The Cripple of Inishmaan” can’t help but drag in parts. Count on it growing fleeter as the run continues and the actors (with the help of dialect coach Michael J. Barnes) add tempo to their already consistent Irish accents.