‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’: A take on the mythology of what it is to be Irish

The plays and films of Martin McDonagh could hardly be called light entertainment.  From “Lonesome West” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” to “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” “The Pillowman,” “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths,” the Irish writer often punctuates his dark comedies with brutality, gore, and the occasional murder.

That said, “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” written by McDonagh in 1996, stands on its own.  Although still brimming with cruelty, this tale of a cripple who longs for a chance to shine is often described as having a simple poignancy underscored by heart.  It’s also laugh-out-loud funny.

An exercise in great story telling, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” is being presented by the Boston University College of Fine Arts, School of Theatre, from April 29 to May 3 at the Boston University Theatre.

The title character is young Billy, an outcast both for his physical affliction and the fact that his remote village on the western coast of Ireland sees him as being not too bright.  The truth is that Billy is far sharper than most people give him credit for, which turns out to be a trait that serves him well.  An orphan, he has been raised by two daft old adoptive “aunties.”

Most of McDonagh’s work is set in the present day.  Again in contrast, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” takes place in 1934.  And the hook of the plot is grounded in fact.  Word arrives on Inishmaan that a Hollywood director is coming to nearby Inishmore to shoot a film. 

This is the part of the story that’s true.  Robert J. Flaherty traveled to the Aran Islands in an effort to capture a true slice of Irish life in “Man Of Aran.”  More fantasy than fact, his “documentary” proved to be a contrived effort filled with forced events and inaccurate relationships that had little to do with life off the coast of Ireland.

In the play, the prospect of having a Hollywood director in their midst sets the villagers into a frenzy.  Everyone wants a shot at being involved in the film, including Billy, who sees the documentary as his once-in-a-lifetime chance to break the tedium, gossip, and mocking he experiences.  If all goes well, America could be within his grasp.

Capturing both the inherent humor and sadness of the islanders, “Cripple of Inishmaan” was most recently produced in London and New York starring Daniel Radcliffe of “Harry Potter” fame.

Prior to the Broadway opening of the production (which was nominated for six Tony Awards), Radcliffe said: “What I think is impressive about the play as a whole is that it manages to be so cruel but also has this heart. When you think about the play at first, you think about it as this dark comedy, but I actually don’t think people expected it to have this really heartbreaking, very beautiful, very tender side to it as well, and I think that’s what makes it work. I feel like the last scene from this play leaves the theater with people when they go.”

At BU, the production is being directed by grad student Thomas Martin as part of his MFA Directing thesis. A Montana native, Martin lived and worked in London before arriving in Boston.  Although he first set his sights on an acting career, he shifted his focus to directing after being impressed by the highly creative staging of a production of Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” in London.

“It just blew my mind,” he said, “and at the end of the whole thing I stood up, pointed at the stage and said to my friend ‘I want to do that!’ (although I) didn’t realize exactly what that meant at the time.”

A further turning point came when he was auditioning for a place in an MFA Acting program. “They had me do additional monologues, and at the interview part of it they asked me what I wanted to do. I said ‘I want to be a part of the philosophical implications of a play.’  I realized later that they heard, ‘I don’t want to act any more,’” he said laughing. “I became more and more interested in the directing side of things and helping shape the narrative of the play and helping that interpretive process.”

Here in Boston Martin has worked with Theater Cooperative, Footlight Club, and Arts After Hours in Lynn where he has been Associate Artistic Director since 2013.  Once he graduates in May, he’ll become the company’s Artistic Director. Most recently he served as director Campbell Scott’s assistant for the Huntington Theatre production of Ronan Noone’s “The Second Girl.”

When considering plays for his thesis production, he ultimately chose “The Cripple of Inishmaan” because “I am fascinated by stories of outsiders, people who are outsiders because of some perceived difference, whether physical or just the way they see the world.

“Billy’s ostracized because of a physical ailment rather than anything inherent like his personality or character,” he said.  “But what I found very interesting is the way he uses his inherent outsider-ness and manipulates people to get what he wants.”
As his cast begins the rehearsal process, Martin said, “What I’m loving about the play is McDonagh’s take on mythology – the mythology of what it is to be Irish, both in terms of how the Irish view themselves and how the outside world views Irish-ness.
“I love the way McDonagh drops small signifiers as to time and place,” he said. When [the character] Johnny is sitting with his mother reading the newspaper, he’s talking about a man in Germany who has just come to power with a funny little mustache.  And the commentary is like, ‘Oh I hope he’s successful. I hope he has a good go of it’ . . . When you start to process what’s being said, you say, ‘Oh my God, they’re talking about Hitler.  And they’re pleased!

“In some ways, they’re at the end of the world,” said Martin. “You head west from the Aran Islands and there is nothing until you hit North America . . . It’s a very isolated place.”

R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstage boston.com.

The Cripple of Inishmaan,” Boston University Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Avenue. Information: 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com.