While Martin McDonagh grew up in England, his parents were native Irish and as a boy he travelled nearly every summer to the west of Ireland to spend time with relatives. He was regaled by his uncles with hilarious, bizarre, and sometimes creepy stories of the petty lives of the country-folk. These stories and their colorful cast of characters would later provide McDonagh with a template for his Aran Islands trilogy, the first of which is The Cripple of Inishmaan.
But McDonagh’s interest in these people and their stories was not that of mere reportage. He sought to put his own stamp on the Irish mythos, filtering it through the contemporary lens of a playwright influenced by the movies of Al Pacino and the plays of David Mamet. Along the way, he questioned how we know what we know about a people and the accuracy and motives of those who created and perpetuated that mythos over the years.
Central to the story of Cripple… is the filming of Roberty Flaherty’s famous “documentary” film The Man of Aran [You can watch it below]. (I put documentary in quotes because, while Flaherty is largely seen as having invented the form, he staged many scenes to get the story that he wanted to tell about this remote community, rather than simply documenting the life that he found when he got there. Indeed, many now describe the film as ethnofiction or docufiction rather than true documentary). Ever since the film premiered in 1934, there has been contention among the Aran Islanders about how accurately it depicts the life they and their ancestors led. McDonagh builds on that question of authenticity by giving us a place where stories are always changing and no one seems to know the whole truth about anything. Facts are hidden, stories spun, letters forged and secrets revealed. Our hero Billy, in searching for the truth about his parents, travels to America and back before finally getting answers to his questions. But the truth he thinks he’s finally found ends up not being true at all – and the lie he has been told hides something darker behind it. Along the way, McDonagh shatters our old perceptions of the rural Irish and puts forward a new mythos, albeit one with no more relevance to reality than the one it replaced.
The Cripple of Inishmaan marks my third foray into the world of Martin McDonagh. Previously, I have directed A Skull in Connemara for the Washington Stage Guild, and played Father Welsh in The Lonesome West at Rep Stage. These productions have been some of the most memorable of my career. I love McDonagh’s combination of dark, moody, violent characters, oddball situations and hilarious dialogue. Cripple… is clearly the most sentimental of his plays, but there is nothing genteel about it. Like all of McDonagh’s Irish plays, it’s certainly a comedy, with plenty of uproarious laugh lines. But McDonagh’s brand of comedy always comes tinged with darkness. With coarse language, bawdy jokes, explosive violence and laughs borne out of graphic, sometimes heinous situations – it’s right up my alley!
The Cripple of Inishmaan is at its heart, a coming-of-age story. Billy is fed up with life on this island, mocked by everyone as the village cripple, and hemmed in on all sides by a violent sea that he fears – a sea that purportedly took the life of his Mammy and Daddy when he was just a wee baby. He spends his days staring at cows, reading, and dreaming of a way off this island to a new life. When he is given that opportunity, he finds that a life away is not so different from Inishmaan. But he returns determined to live on his own terms and to approach his fate head on – else why be a man at all?
With 9 characters in 9 scenes, taking place in 5 different locations, our design team had their work cut out for them. JD Madsen decided to embrace the island theme and give us a turntable set – in his words “adrift in the sea spinning on its own axis and in its own time…cut off from everything else.” JD has given us a beautifully rendered series of locales, evocatively lit by 2014 Helen Hayes nominee Brian Allard, that seamlessly transitions us from scene to scene. With the assist of Neil McFadden’s sound design, the effect of some of the scene changes, led by Stage Manager Sarah Magno, is quite breathtaking.
And those 9 actors? Costume Designer Cheryl Patton-Wu has provided them with over 100 individual pieces to create multi-layered looks, full of rustic fabrics and texture, which feel true to the period as well as expressive of the characters’ personalities. Cindy Jacobs completes the design team with her period-specific props and hand-labored stage dressing that ties the whole look together. I’m so proud of the entire design team. They’ve all given me solutions to the design problems of this show that not only work extremely well for the production, but also show an attention to detail often unseen in a theatre of this size. I have to give kudos to Artistic Director Mark Krikstan for assembling such a fine team of artists for this project. They’ve made my job easier and made the physical production amazing to watch.
All in all, this has been a fantastic experience putting this show together. And I haven’t even mentioned the cast – Josh Adams, Mark Adams, Matt Dewberry, Megan Graves, Robert Grimm, Susan Holliday, Rebecca Lenehan, and Carol Randolph – all of whom are doing wonderful, funny, moving work in bringing this ensemble to life! I like to pride myself on the spirit of collaboration I bring to the productions I direct. I’m very happy to say that this show has been possibly the best example of that in my career. I do hope you’ll come see it!