Forget the romantic musical fantasies of “Finian´s Rainbow”: The remote Irish village circa 1934 in Michigan State University’s Department of Theatre’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” more closely parallels the joys and struggles of rural America by dramatizing the ordinary.
In playwright Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy, characters mythologize even the most trivial village events and fret over the fortunes of others to stave off boredom. But beneath the crusty idiosyncratic personas and exaggerated hysterics are misunderstood people grounded in compassion.
Graduate student Edward O’Ryan stars as ‘Cripple Billy’ from the title town, dragging one foot behind him like a lead pipe. When news arrives via the village gossip that an American film crew has arrived to recruit local talent, Billy resolves to leave Inishmaan to pursue acting in Hollywood. But escaping requires more than chartering transportation. It means countering his perceived physical limits with his words or by any other means possible.
Director Ann Folino White empowers her actors to make bold choices rendering characters that border on the overly dramatic.
While the script avoids easy Irish stereotypes (apart from some brief whisky imbibing and a sarcastic reference to a shalalie), actors remain only one level away from shouting to make their points. Without equally measured diction, the result is often an acoustical echo cloud created by overlapping Irish accents and the dynamics of the Arena Theatre.
It’s a shame, because the cadence and rhyme of the dialogue beautifully set the tone of the humor, but only when they can be understood.
Thankfully, O’Ryan’s lines are never lost, courtesy of his voice that cuts through to the back walls like a laser. Additionally, O’Ryan’s subtle facial expressions and body language breathe natural vulnerability into a play that is often infused with hysterical gestures.
Other actors who create more nuanced performances include Caitlyn Knisely as Kate, the daft but perky shop owner, Dan Inglese as Bartley, the overgrown child, Tim Smela as Bobby, the chiseled but kind boat rower, and Tyler Gotch as the authoritative town doctor. Zachara Wollenberg also charms as the tomboyish town flirt Helen.
Despite slapstick elements and sitcom-like laugh lines, “Inishmaan” is anything but a light comedy. Abundant references to horny priests and tuberculosis are fodder for funny in McDonagh’s world. The trick is keeping your ears perked to catch the message through the cloud of green.
´The Crippleof Inishmaan´
7:30 p.m. tonight
Auditorium Arena Theatre
$10 all seats