Martin McDonagh’s potent blend of humor and savagery is given additional poignancy in Garry Hynes’ revival of his 1997 play, “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” premiering at Druid Theater’s home base in Galway before transferring Off Broadway to the Atlantic Theater Company in December. Set on the Aran Islands in 1934, the black comedy is slowed down and given somber treatment here, with an impeccable cast that pays close attention to the rhythms of McDonagh’s dialogue.
The tone is set by Aaron Monaghan’s superbly sensitive central performance as Cripple Billy, the orphan with twisted limbs who longs to escape from his island home — and his fate. Staring at cows and reading books are his main activities, until the film crew making “The Man of Aran” arrives on the neighboring island of Inishmore. Billy dreams of a new life in Hollywood, where he figures crippled actors are bound to be in demand.
The mythic view of the West of Ireland presented in the 1934 Robert Flaherty movie is casually punctured by the islanders in a comic scene in which they watch the film and are unimpressed. While the locals don’t recognize themselves in the portrayal, they are gratified by the external validation it represents.
Throughout the play, characters continually repeat the refrain that “Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place” if foreigners want to visit it. This anxiety about how the country is perceived wittily anticipates the reception of McDonagh’s own satirical re-imagining of rural Ireland, in this play and in “The Leenane Trilogy.” Some Irish observers have uncomfortably wondered whether they are the butt of his humor, while international audiences have questioned whether the world depicted in his plays is “real.”
Druid’s production creates an Inishmaan distilled by memory. Francis O’Connor’s stripped, blue-tinged wooden set and Davy Cunningham’s shadowy lighting establish a mood of restrained melancholy, matched by Hynes’ grasp of emotional nuance.
That Billy’s passage by boat to Inishmore is secured by a lie that eventually comes true is one of many ironies McDonagh scatters throughout this play, in which the relationship between truth and invention is constantly slipping and shifting. In this isolated world, language has become unmoored from reality.
Billy’s two aunts, Eileen (Dearbhla Molloy) and Kate (Marie Mullen), engage in comic dialogue, full of repetition and reiteration. Hynes directs these scenes with slow deliberation, amid a sea of silence, emphasizing their artificial, almost ritualized pattern, in which the characters comment on their own words and criticize each other’s choice of vocabulary.
This self-consciousness is taken to an extreme in the mannered characterization of eccentric Johnnypateenmike (David Pearse), “the most boring aul fecker in Ireland.” The main conduit for island information, he delivers news in three installments, ascribing significance to trivia. A prototype of a sleazy tabloid hack, his prized nuggets of information are bartered for eggs and tins of peas.
Pearse plays him in an exaggerated mode, full of high-pitched flourishes, which sacrifices a lot of the humor and tries the audience’s patience as much as that of the other characters. Yet Johnnypateenmike is more complex than he first appears. His unreliability as a narrator becomes crucial later on, when his ability to spin a yarn about the past saves Billy from finding out the bleak truth about his parents.
In McDonagh’s unpredictable world, ironic reversals prevent us from making easy assumptions. The kind-hearted boatman can turn viciously violent; the wantonly sadistic teaser (Kerry Condon) can finally summon some sympathy for Billy. And it would be hard not to: Monaghan’s performance is the emotional core of this production, which brings new depth to one of McDonagh’s best plays.