In Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” a morally corrosive period comedy set in the titular Irish community, gossip spreads like a disease, and everyone exploits everyone else’s weaknesses. Mockery is the order the day, and political correctness is nonexistent: A spade is as spade, a slut is a slut, a cripple is a cripple. McDonagh is a savage, ruthless writer, and his 1997 play is as cold and hard as the slabs in a morgue.
Yet we laugh at it—moreover, we laugh with it—even when we shouldn’t. That the show’s current revival at Palm Beach Dramaworks is so awfully funny is a testament to director J. Barry Lewis and his expertly curated cast’s superlative straddling of tactless comedy, deadpan tragedy and unexpected violence.
The “cripple” of the title is Billy Claven (Dramaworks newcomer Adam Petherbridge), a young man partially paralyzed from birth, who wiles away his days in Inishmaan staring at livestock or—in what the locals see as a stranger pastime—reading books. Petherbridge, simulating a palsied hand and dragging a dead-weight foot, exhibits tremendous control over his body, but he’s even better emotionally and psychically, refusing to sentimentalize his disadvantaged character.
Billy’s parents died in a mysterious marine incident when Billy was still a child, so he’s raised by a pair of aunts, the sturdy Eilieen and the quavering Kate, played with chemical interconnectedness by Elizabeth Dimon and Laura Turnbull as two sides of the same maternal coin. The aunts love Billy, but like the rest of their cruel community, they mince few words when acknowledging his limitations.
Discussing Billy’s decided absence of romantic prospects, Kate ventures, “Billy does have a sweet face, if you ignore the rest of him.” After a beat, Eileen counters, “He doesn’t, really. … You’d see nicer eyes on a goat.” Salt, meet wound.
Nothing much happens in Inishmaan, population 375 at the time of the play’s 1934 setting. The discovery of an earless sheep, and reports of a neighborly spat between a goose and a cat, pass for breaking news, which is always delivered by the town’s resident busybody, Johnnypateenmike O’Dougal (Colin McPhillamy, the outsized picture of Barnumesque bombast). Except this time, Johnnypateen has news of consequence: The neighboring island of Inishmore is soon to be visited by American documentarian Robert Flaherty, who is shooting an ethnographic film about the Aran Islands’ fishermen. (This part of the play is based on fact; Flaherty’s film, “Man of Aran,” was released that very year.)
For Billy, this Hollywood emissary might just serve as his opportunity to escape the vacant land of needlers and hecklers for a starry-eyed future in Los Angeles. Movies occasionally need cripples, right?
So Billy finds his way on a boat to Inishmore to audition for Mr. Flaherty, with results that change depending on who conveys them. Unreliable narrators keep the audience guessing as to Billy’s success rate, his whereabouts and his health, McDonagh regularly misdirecting us.
But the pleasures of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” are not in the shifting tides of its plot but in the everyday interactions of its caustic characters. There are scenes in this expertly paced 130 minutes that propel nothing in the storyline but serve as gifts for the actors and audience alike. The best of them involves a handful of broken eggs and a sibling rivalry between the self-absorbed and sexually uninhibited Helen McCormick (Adelind Horan, full of spunk and venom) and her slow and gullible brother Bartley (an exceptional Wesley Slade). Jim Ballard, as a vengeful boatman; Harriet Oser, as Johnnypateen’s eternal, sharp-tongued mother; and Dennis Creaghan, as Inishmaan’s exasperated physician, complete the uniformly excellent supporting cast.
Scenic designer Victor Becker, who won a Carbonell Award for the smooth multifunctionality of his 2015 “History Boys” set, achieves a similar fluidity in his “Inishmaan” designs, skillfully evoking a general store, boathouse, cinema, bedroom and more through variations on straightforward wood walls and doors. Steve Shapiro’s sound design includes lapping waves and atmospheric selections from the Chieftans, whose Celtic strings gambol blithely between scenes. Paul Black’s peerless lighting expertly conjures the subtle gradations of sunset into night. In two of my favorite effects, a pale moon seems to illuminate an interaction from behind a black curtain; and, as the characters gather for a screening of “Man of Aran,” the actors’ shadows play against a hazy reflection of film footage.
This all contributes to a sterling production of a pretty good play. Dramaworks hits every note with accuracy and gusto, lacking only the lasting emotional resonance better captured by less acerbic, more heartfelt writers. McDonagh is not a playwright who touches the soul—except, perhaps, to slap it around a wee bit.
“The Cripple of Inishmaan” runs through June 4 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $66. Call 561/514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.