Is it possible to be grim and joyful at the same time?
Yes. And I submit as evidence Martin McDonagh’s play “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” being given a strong production at the Phoenix Theatre (through March 1).
Set in 1934 (I’m lifting some of the description below from my review of the brilliant 2014 Broadway production), “The Cripple of Inishmaan” concerns a group of Irish locals whose lives are affected by the presence of a film crew on a neighboring island. At the center is Billy—that’s what he likes to be called, although folks in these parts prefer Cripple Billy—whose disability makes his desire to be a part of the production seem delusional to those around him. These include his not-quite aunties, a gossip-monger who is the village’s de facto newsman, a widower with a boat that could take Billy to his dreams, and a lass whose nasty habits include chucking eggs.
To reduce any of them to a few words of description is to trivialize McDonagh’s rich writing. Colorful, eccentric storytellers are nothing new—what would Irish plays be without them?—but McDonagh does more than keep us guessing about the stories behind the stories. He surprises with who is telling tales. And those revelations pack emotional wallops that are both surprising and, in hindsight, inevitable.
In an overall strong cast here, Phoenix veterans Deborah Sargent and Gayle Steigerwald stand out, setting the proper tone immediately as the aunties. Rob Johansen is firmly in his element as gossipy Johnnypateenmike. And, in his Phoenix debut, Michael Hosp—a regular at smaller local theaters—acquaints himself quite well as the grieving Babbybobby. On opening weekend, a few of the revelations were rushed and second act pacing flagged a bit, but not to a point where it crippled McDonagh’s vision.
For me, the biggest problem—not noticed until after—came from condescending-bordering-on-insulting background notes in the program, which seem to believe the show needs apologizing for. “The show is set and indeed written in a time that is less PC than today,” the notes read, as if there’s something wrong with the material and/or the audience. But McDonagh's play doesn’t need such caveats and I hope the Phoenix audience doesn’t need such prompting. It’s a harsh play at times—appropriate to the harsh circumstances of the landscape and culture. As deep as the insults cut, though, and as unsmiling as its characters may be, the Phoenix production never seems to forget how much love there is in the show.
A good production of “The Cripple of Inishmaan”—and this is one—should leave audiences laughing and empathizing
Owing as much to Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety” as it does to Alfred Hitchcock’s movie that gives it its name, Actors Theatre of Indiana’s production of “The 39 Steps” (through Feb. 15 at the Studio Theatre) is an audience pleaser that goes down easy—with little or no side effects.
Like the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s 2011 production of the show, the innocent-man-on-the-run story peeks early with a fun quick-change sequence on a train. And like the IRT’s iteration, the novelty starts to wear off in the second act. What ATI adds is a more cinematic look courtesy of an old-school credit sequence, some playful shadow effects (the deliberate sloppiness of which generate laughs but takes us a step away from the show’s Hitchcock-ian roots), and fun, straight-faced performances by Logan Moore as the caught-in-the-chaos lead and Lisa Ermel, Ian McCabe, and Don Farrell as everyone else.