If you’ve never seen the sadly short-lived British TV series Father Ted (R.I.P. Dermot Morgan), you owe it to yourself to give it a look. It’s a screamingly funny show set on the fictitious Craggy Island off Ireland’s western coast. It is also the spiritual sibling to Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, which takes place on a real island in the same general vicinity.
Both the show and the play share a wicked, machine gun wit, profoundly quirky characters and an obvious love of dear old Ireland, but where you’ll have to hunt down a streaming option or DVD copy of Father Ted, you’ll only have to drive to Golden to see The Cripple of Inishmaan live on stage in all its Celtic glory.
For my money, McDonagh is one of the most talented playwrights working today. His Leenane trilogy and his Aran Islands trilogy, of which The Cripple of Inishmaan is a part, showcase his uproariously dark sense of humor, his penchant for injecting scenes of random, sometimes shocking violence and his facility with creating indelible characters. He’s also successfully made the jump into screenwriting and directing with the well-received films Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges.
Since its move to Golden in 2003, the Miners Alley Playhouse has produced an incredible volume of outstanding work. When founder Rick Bernstein and his wife and partner, Paige Larson, bowed out of Miners Alley in 2014, Len Matheo, Lisa DeCaro, Brenda Worley Billings and Jim Billings took over, and I am happy to report that the new management thus far continues to meet the high standards set by the original one.
Miners Alley’s attention to detail is apparent before The Cripple of Inishmaan even begins. John Scott-McKean’s set greets the milling audience with a fluidly trifurcated world-at-a-glance. A humble bedroom gives way to a rocky seashore, complete with overturned boat, which transitions into a rustic, countryside pub. This design choice instantly and elegantly establishes the world of the play and all but eliminates distracting, time consuming set changes.
The pub is owned by Eileen (Sasha Fisher) and Kate (Linda Suttle) who also act as custodians to local boy and orphan, Billy (Cody Schuyler). Though his “aunts” worry about Billy’s predilection for staring at cows, Billy is fundamentally sound of mind. It’s his body that holds him back, but when he learns from local “newsman” Johnnypateenmike (Mark Collins) that a Hollywood movie is filming on Inishmore, the next island over, even Billy’s physical infirmities can’t keep him from trying to find a way to the set to beg for an audition.
Knowing that Babbybobby (Sam Gilstrap) will be ferrying the juvenile Bartley (Brandon Palmer) and his querulous sister Helen (Meredith Young) to Inishmore, Billy pulls out all the stops to secure a seat on the tiny boat. What happens from then on is too much fun to spoil here.
Director Len Matheo brings McDonagh’s superb script to loving, vibrant life. With McDonaugh’s flawlessly drawn characters and lilting, earthy, often-biting dialogue to work with, Matheo more than succeeds in his goal of transporting the audience to Inishmaan. He also shows a sure hand dealing with the play’s periodic radical shifts in tone, and he uncovers all of the humor as wells as the pathos the play has to offer.
Matheo’s spot-on casting choices no doubt aided his cause. Miners newcomer Schuyler takes the difficult role of Billy and makes it look easy. He is not only convincing, but also makes the most of the more surprising aspects of Billy’s personality. He even sticks the landing on his one tour de force, wheezing, twitching, “Acting!” scene without once crossing the line into self-parody.
Fisher and Suttle are the very picture of loving, concerned, occasionally befuddled aunts. Palmer and Young play their supporting roles with keen attention to balancing big and small moments. Gilstrap continues his trend of outperforming himself from role to role each time I see him. And Collins earns every one of his many laughs. Collins is also responsible for the dialect coaching, and given the paramount importance of consistent, believable accents in a play such as this and that every actor’s Irish brogue remains strong throughout, he deserves extra points for that.
Putting on a play is always a gamble. Miners Alley’s The Cripple of Inishmaan is an example of hitting the theatrical trifecta. When an exceptional script is put in the hands of a skilled director lucky enough to have a passionate, talented cast and crew, the payoff is huge. To use the play’s own Irish vernacular, The Cripple of Inishmaan is fecking brilliant.