This remarkable production of The Cripple of Inishmaan is a fantastic way to kick off Colonial Players’ new season, its 68th. Written by Martin McDonagh and directed by Dave Carter, it tells the story of a young, crippled man growing up in a small Irish town in 1934, and his attempts to escape the place and its prejudices. The acting, direction, lighting, sound, costumes, and set design all combine to create an evening of laughter and tears.
The play is a comedy that uses humor to mask deep pain, anger, and sadness. Billy (Jack Leitess), is a young man with only one functioning arm and leg each, cared for by his “pretend” aunties Kate (Carol Cohen) and Eileen (Mary MacLeod) after his parents’ death. The women wonder at his habit of staring off into space at cows; Billy later jokes that he does it to escape from the aunties. Kate has a habit of speaking to stones when stressed, which gets great laughs from the audience and the other townspeople. They also wonder at his romantic prospects, remarking that “poor Billy will never be kissed unless it’s by a blind girl.” Everyone, even the aunties, call him “Cripple Billy.” When Billy learns of a film crew at a nearby island looking for crippled people to appear in a Hollywood movie, he seizes the opportunity to escape and make a better life. It works out differently than he hoped.
Leitess is an incredibly talented Billy. Wearing a crude brace on one leg and holding one arm in a painful-looking position near his neck, he literally drags himself around the stage. While he jokes with the townspeople, and gives as good insults as he receives, at times his defenses drop and the hurt, both physical and emotional, becomes clear on his face. There are two scenes where the laughs are left behind and the scared, scarred, lonely boy comes to the surface, and Leitess is exceptional here. Jack Leitess has a wonderful career ahead of him.
Natasha Joyce gives a powerful performance as Helen, a feisty, violent young woman. Her actions and words shock both the audience and the townspeople. She swears frequently, kicks a priest because he “fondled her arse” in church, and pelts her brother Bartley (Andrew “Drew” Sharpe) with eggs. She seems to take pleasure in torturing Billy, asking him,“Would you love you, if you weren’t you?” in response to his claim that his parents loved him.
Edd Miller plays Johnnypateenmike, the town gossip, with great comic timing. He enjoys finding out news and delivering it in his own particular fashion. He is particularly interested in knowing about Billy’s health, although Billy finds him annoying. His relationship with his mother Mammy O’Dougle (Lisa BG Rath) gets a great deal of laughs; she sneaks drinks from a flask, while Johnny argues with Doctor McSharry (Danny Brooks) about her drinking. For instance, their bickering is filled with dark humor as Mammy says to Johnny, “You’re the most boring old fecker in all of Ireland,” while he comes back with, “I’ll see you in your coffin first, if we can find a big enough one for your fat arse.”
Andrew “Drew” Sharpe also has great comic moments as Helen’s younger brother Bartley. He drives Eileen to near madness asking for sweets her store doesn’t carry, and is obsessed by telescopes. Although Helen tends to overpower him, both physically and verbally, he gets in a few good jabs at her.
Scott Nichols does a wonderful job as Babbybobby, a captain who helps Billy off the island. He and Leitess have two tender moments, one that goes well, and another that isn’t as hoped. He also has a comic role in relaying news to the aunties about Billy, with his expression and delivery belying the good news.
Joann Gidos is a brilliant Properties Designer, and Terry Averill a great Set Designer, making parts of the stage look at times like Eileen and Kate’s store, the shore where Babbybobby works on his boat, and a bedroom for Billy and Mammy. There’s even a church hall where they watch Billy’s film – a real documentary – which formed the basis for the play.
Christina R. McAlpine does a wonderful job as Costume Designer, making all the characters’ clothes look authentic. They truly look like the clothing of working-class people in early 20th Century Ireland.
Shirley Panek is a talented Lighting Designer. She changes the lighting to reflect the setting and mood. When Billy talks with Babbybobby on the shore, it feels like the sea at night, with waves and blackness. When Billy is in his hotel room, a red light reflects the blinking outside neon sign, giving a sordidness to the surroundings.
Nancy Krebs has done a fine job as dialect coach in making sure every actor sounds perfectly natural in their Irish accents. While the audience may have to pay closer attention to the dialogue, it is easy to understand. It adds another touch of authenticity, and makes even the swearing sound charming.
Dave Carter has done a wonderful job directing. The actors move through the stage cleanly and naturally, and effectively cover the emotional moments with comedy. The second act has a lot of story to get through, so sometimes pacing slows down, but the characters are fascinating to watch, as they struggle to find their place in the world. As Billy explains, “A lot of other folks are just as crippled as I am, it’s just not as obvious.”
Colonial Players’ The Cripple of Inishmore is a thoughtful, funny, and poignant piece of theater, filled with great performances. It makes for an evening that is both entertaining and soulful.
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, with a 10-minute intermission.
The Cripple of Inishmaan plays through October 1, 2016 at The Colonial Players of Annapolis – 108 East Street in Annapolis. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 268-7373, or purchase them online.