The Cripple of Inishmaan,” now staging at Guild Hall, is a very dark Irish comedy (are there actually lighthearted Irish comedies?), and it’s a masterpiece. Written by Martin McDonagh, whose film “Seven Psychopaths,” screened at last summer’s Hamptons International Film Fest, “Cripple” is disturbing, for sure, but it’s also wickedly funny and one of the most satisfying theatrical productions this reviewer has seen in quite some time.
The play, set on the remote Irish island of Inishmaan in 1934, is based on a true story—the filming of the documentary “Man of Aran” by Hollywood documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty on nearby Inishmore. This fact is pointed out to the audience, smartly so, in the initial moments of the action when the beginning scenes of the 80-year-old film are projected behind the set. It’s the first of many very, very good choices made by director Stephen Hamilton. The credits to the documentary also bookend the end of the play, also brilliantly staged.
Another storytelling device that Mr. Hamilton uses to great effect is the seating of the audience right up on the stage, in intimately close proximity to the actors on set—which is stunning, by the way (nicely done with the set design by Brian Lever). If there ever was a play that benefited from the theater-within-a-theater configuration, it’s “Cripple,” which does have its big moments but is definitely a tale best told with deft touches, and not broad actions.
The caliber of acting is also of the highest order here. It helps that the actors are all quite accomplished in their craft, but with a less experienced director helming the production, this is the kind of story that could quickly go awry. No such worries with the talented men and women of this production of “Cripple,” which is top-notch. At no time, even as we audience members sat within arm’s length of the actors, did anyone ever (and I mean ever!) break the fourth wall. That’s a feat that even the best have trouble with, even when the audience is sitting in their standard seats far away from the stage.
Every single actor brings something to this production but my favorite has to be Georgia Warner, who plays the hard-hearted lass Helen, who absolutely terrorizes the town. In real life, this girl’s a peach but in “Cripple,” she’s playing someone who is so bad. Even so, it’s absolutely impossible to take your eyes off this mean girl when she’s on stage.
Of course, there’s also the lead character, “Cripple Billy,” played with heart and beauty by Christopher Imbrosciano. The actor brings so much depth to this character, whose physical impairments are oft-discussed but whose soul is more whole and pure than that of the entire town of “Inishmaan.” Honestly, I didn’t see the defects in Cripple Billy nearly as clearly as I saw the strengths, thanks to Mr. Imbrosciano’s genuine and heartfelt portrayal.
Tuck Milligan, as the village gossip Johnnypateenmike, is absolutely incredible. As the character who regards himself a newsman but is really a true expert in schadenfreude, Johnnypateenmike not only controls the flow of information but also sets the pace and tone of the play. In addition to being incredibly entertaining, Mr. Milligan also really looks the part of the wily Irishman. He is immensely watchable.
The rest of the cast is also superb. Well done to Janet Sarno and Kristen Lowman as Cripple Billy’s aunts, Kate and Eileen; Evan Daves as the put-upon Bartley, the brother of the evil Helen; Joe Pallister as seaman BabbyBobby; Tom Gustin as Doctor McSharry and Margaret Dawson as Johnnypateenmike’s Mammy. Kudos also to producer Ellen Myers and the rest of the production cast.
I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of this play. But those with weak constitutions beware: this play has more than its fair share of very crude dialog and vulgarity. If you are easily offended, stay home.
Bottom line: “Cripple” is one of the best shows to be staged here in recent memory. It’s a real treat to get to see a production of this caliber.
“The Cripple of Inishmaan” stages at Guild Hall in East Hampton Wednesdays through Sundays, through June 9. Show times are Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30, $28 for members and $10 for students. For reservations, contact the Guild Hall box office at 324-4050, visit guildhall.org or call Theatermania at (866) 811-4111 or visit theatermania.com.