by Erin Layton · April 26, 2014
Playwrights on New Plays #65 Erin Layton comments on The Cripple of Inishmaan at The Cort Theatre As the lights come up on Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan now playing on Broadway at the Cort Theatre, images of floating clouds pass through a veiled projection of an Irish countryside. A fiddle hums its lyrical tune and the lapping sounds of the sea happily surge and moan. The characters hide beneath the veiled landscape, frozen in scene, quietly awaiting their reveal. One could just as well be inside Dublin’s own Abbey Theatre or better yet, a guest in the warm belly of a delightful Irish cottage where the front door forever flies open to welcome an almost parodied cast of misfits who daily tromp through, dropping off their bundles of gossip, trickery, annoyances, charm or downright cruelty.
The Cripple of Inishmaan, masterfully directed by the amazing Michael Grandage, is a feast for the eyes and the spirit with those familiar and unique Irish turns of phrase, fits of unabashed humor and moments of deep sadness that melt even the coldest heart.
Every village has its story, especially this little town of Inishmaan, one of the three Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland. The year is 1934. The war has not yet disrupted the sense of global solidarity and peace. The film industry is booming, enchanting the world around with a golden apple of fulfilled promises and dreams. Billy [Daniel Radcliffe] is one such character who has starry ambitions that far outstretch his mundane, rural existence where he is the “village cripple” or “Cripple Billy”. Billy, who’s been severely disabled since birth, was very early orphaned by his parents and since lives with his two aunts, Kate [Ingrid Craigie] and Eileen [Gillian Hanna] who daily smother and scrutinize him as only maternal and caring aunts do. But Kate and Eileen, as everyone else, fail to see beyond Billy’s disability to the boy who daydreams for hours at a time about a more exciting life, pining for love after the cruel but equally beautiful village brat, Helen [Sarah Greene]. One day, Johnnypateenmike [Pat Shortt], the town gossip and frequent visitor, arrives at Kate and Eileen’s little shop with his daily scoop of local buzz that rarely surpasses the search for a lost cat or dead goose, to deliver a piece of news that tips this little Aran village on its ear. Hollywood is coming to the neighboring town of Inishmore to shoot a documentary film called “Man of Aran” about life on the islands and they’re casting the local civilians. This opportunity peaks everyone’s interest especially Billy’s and he comes up with a plan to solicit the sympathy of fellow villager Babbybobby [Padraic Delaney], with a similar hope of fame and celebrity, to invite him on a voyage by boat with others to Inishmore.
Daniel Radcliffe’s physicality as a boy with a crippling disability is viscerally felt in even his most ordinary moments from arranging his seat on a chair to lifting blankets off a bed. And yet, he possesses a kind of sprightliness one finds in any young man of his age with an eagerness and burning to live beyond the confines of a thankless existence. He moves with a quickness of energy that ascends his physical disability as we witness a boy with big dreams, a pounding heart and intoxicating spirit. Radcliffe’s Billy forces you to examine the kind of yearning that you cannot help but love and his solitary moments of plight nearly too devastating to bear.
The entire acting ensemble put on McDonagh’s characters with an almost obscene accuracy. Each actor possesses the comic timing and wit that the play demands and time passes with a satisfying swiftness that left me longing for more. Their individual characterizations of Irish country folk - some deeply religious, profane, sarcastic, drunk and blubbering though loveable - pulse with the kind of soul that evoke an endearing sense of being known in a familial way, like a tight, loving embrace of an aging relative or a sloppy kiss on the cheek from a drunk uncle.
Grandage pulls together not only an incredible ensemble of performers but an equally superior design team. Set and Costume Designer, Christopher Oram takes the audience on a magical journey, inviting us into each scene like the turning of pages in a pop-up children’s storybook, each room or place nestled inside the carved out spaces of a larger-than-life boulder on stage.
All elements work together to serve up an absolutely delightful, hysterical, authentic and engaging theatrical experience. There isn't a single lost note in this brilliantly executed production.