Friday, February 6, 2015

Once upon an island: Phoenix Theatre production shows the limits and strengths of truth in a small community

In an age when a $10-million-a-year network anchorman can get away with a repeated lie, we are usefully reminded how, even among ordinary folks, lies are a foundational element in the conduct of everyday life. They aren't fragile outgrowths from the bedrock of truth on which we build our lives.

We can deplore them in particular cases, but we can't deny how much they may protect something approaching civic harmony and lend meaning to individual lives starved for options. In "The Cripple of Inishmaan," there is precious little such harmony on the surface. The isolation of the middle-sized of the Aran Islands has allowed familiarity to breed contempt, and playwright Martin McDonagh buries the bonds of affection well beneath the surface.

Billy contemplates his image doubtfully.
Cripple Billy, the young man of the title, is perpetually reminded how odd and probably worthless he is because of birth defects that cause him to limp and shuffle when he walks and tuck his left arm close to his chest like an inert wing. He does not seem capable of rising above his circumstances. But neither do the other eight residents in this glum yet endearing dark comedy,  presented by the Phoenix Theatre as its fifth production of the season.

On opening night Thursday, it was remarkable how soon the bonds tightened under Bryan Fonseca's direction, even as each character's idiosyncrasies were writ large by outstanding performances. Right off, it was a pleasure to take in the rightness of Deborah Sargent and Gayle Steigerwald for their roles in the opening scene, as Cripple Billy's "aunties" (Kate and Eileen) bicker and talk past each other in the hut-like store and home they share.

I know I should have sunk into the illusion that allows theater to do its thing, looking through the
"Aunties" Kate (Deb Sargent) and Eileen (Gayle Steigerwald)
fourth wall and all that, transporting myself to an obscure Irish island in 1934. That necessary transition could wait; for the first few minutes, I was just saying "Ahhhh!" to myself, watching these two Phoenix veterans work so well together again.

Everything that followed had an aptness to McDonagh's highly charged scenario. Rob Johansen made every word, pause, and gesture tell as Johnnypateenmike, the island's crabby, incorrigible gossip. As Babbybobby, Michael Hosp embodied the stoicism and pent-up hurts of seafaring people who focus on the few things they can do well while absorbing setbacks and tragedies as best they can.

The men are opposites in all respects (and in surprising ways, eventually). On Inishmaan violence — painful if not lethal — evolves naturally out of interpersonal friction. It's almost part of the social compact. So is tactlessness. People score points in conversation by violating loose promises to avoid certain topics. "You have about as much tact as a fire alarm on Resurrection Day," my father used to tell me during my blunt youth. In "The Cripple of Inishmaan," the siren always seems about ready to sound.

It's embedded in the character of Helen. a hard-bitten teenager accustomed to tyrannize over her brother, Bartley, her employer and anyone who crosses her path. Ryan O'Shea gave the role the immature arrogrance it required; she scowled and snapped and erupted as the mood strikes Helen, who is fully capable of breaking more than eggs, her specialty. Her whipping-boy brother, Bartley (Tyler Ostrander), dreams obsessively of "sweeties" and telescopes. He's sort of a touchstone for the fantasies generated by the life of privation the islanders are accustomed to.

This scanty backdrop of resources lends wings to Cripple Billy's dreams of escape, nurtured by the visit of a Hollywood film crew to Inishmore, the largest of the three islands. Scheming past Babbybobby's reluctance to include him in the boating party bound for Inishmore, he makes the trip with an outcome that seems for a while to match his fondest wishes.

Nathan Robbins conveyed the physical awkwardness of Billy consistently, but even more, through his constantly wounded yet wistful facial expressions. His poignant appeal was crucial in cutting through the layers of hostility, evasion and even cruelty that seem Billy's inevitable lot.

A force for good in the island's grudging, pained acceptance of life is Dr. McSharry, played with sorely tried compassion by Paul Collier Hansen.  In contrast, Gigi Jennewein displayed the droll steeliness and cynicism of a survivor against all odds as Johnnypateenmike's bibulous Mammy.

McDonagh has fashioned a style that seems determined to resist the lyricism of Ould Sod playwriting. It borrows from the ferocity, deadpan nonsense and plain-spoken aggression of Pinter and Beckett. The language has aspects of the Irish eloquence we've been trained to expect, but the comedy is fiercer and more abrasive.

You would not hear  a tramp in McDonagh saying something with this kind of lilt to it: "It's myself will go for him, lady of the house, and let you not be destroying yourself with the great rain." That's from a speech, picked almost at random, from John Millington Synge's "In the Shadow of the Glen."

McDonagh's word-weaving makes a different sort of tapestry, with an almost irritating nub. The song in his language has plenty of heart to it, but nothing designed to lull the senses. The Phoenix production is alert to this barbed music, its rough humor, and the bleak warmth of the story that it encloses.