Ireland musn’t be such a bad place if Palm Beach Dramaworks, West Palm Beach’s leading repertory theater company, wants to set a play there. Inishmaan, for example, is home to an eclectic group of residents, salt-swept rocky cliffs, and a town gossip who spreads the latest news.
The Cripple of Inishmaan, onstage through June 4, is a dichotomous dissection of a close-knit Irish community circa 1934, with equal parts dark comedy and drama sprinkled throughout Martin McDonagh’s well-structured script.
The titular character is Billy Claven, played with astounding conviction by Adam Petherbridge. Billy—known locally as Billy the Cripple to everyone, including his aunts—leads a sheltered life, one in which staring at cows counts as entertainment. When he gets word a Hollywood film crew is looking for locals to cast in a movie, he travels to the mainland with widower Babbybobby Bennett (Jim Ballard) and brother-and-sister duo Bartley (Wesley Slade) and Helen McCormick (Adelind Horan) to try his hand at acting. He doesn’t return with the group, so his aunts and the rest of the Inishmaan islanders are left to wonder if he’s made it big in America or succumbed to a fatal disease.
Traditional Irish folk music welcomes the audience and signals a return to a simpler time. Rows and rows of canned peas cover the walls of Eileen (Elizabeth Dimon) and Kate Osbourne’s (Laura Turnbull) modest general store, where a single overhead lamp illuminates the occasional basket of eggs or tray of candy. The set design by Victor Becker is as unassuming as it is inventive. The Osbourne sisters’ store frequently folds into itself to reveal other homes and even a seashore where Babbybobby preps his boat. Franne Lee’s costumes echo the set’s sparseness, defined by dull colors and lots of layers.
A true ensemble effort, The Cripple of Inishmaan provides each of its main characters with plenty of stage time to flesh out their personalities and allow the actors to explore just what makes each person tick.
Adelind Horan digs right into the devilish Helen McCormick. Horan imbues the character with the spirit of an always-misbehaving 12-year-old, as well as a confidence in her womanly wiles. More often than not, the subject of her torment is her brother, Bartley, played with a Dennis the Menace–esque charm by Wesley Slade.
Unlike the McCormick siblings, fellow residents Babbybobby Bennett and Johnnypateenmike O’Dougal defy categorization. Despite his broad build, Jim Ballard’s Babbybobby boasts a soft nature and deep empathy—but an innate violent streak proves hard for him to shake. As the local busybody, Johnnypateenmike prides himself on his ability to discover and deliver the news. Palm Beach Dramaworks favorite Colin McPhillamy does a tremendous job of teasing the humor out of this role, while also showcasing the character’s despicable qualities.
Like Babbybobby and Johnnypateenmike, The Cripple of Inishmaan is a difficult play to succinctly describe. It’s at once laugh-out-loud funny and heart-achingly sad. It’s poetic in its execution, yet meager in its concept. It offers a fulfilling conclusion as well as a devastating open-ended denouement. One thing, however, is for certain: The Cripple of Inishmaan will take home some Carbonell Awards. The cast—and Adam Petherbridge, in particular—should start working on their acceptance speeches now.