It makes sense that the Long Beach Playhouse is staging Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play “The Cripple of Inishmaan” at its edgier upstairs Studio Theatre. The play walks a fine line between comedic and sardonic, deceptively using humor to expose human failings—making us laugh at the sometimes mean ways people treat each other and undercut themselves.
With lilting cadences delivering McDonagh’s witty dialogue, nine cast members succeed in transporting us to a remote town in Ireland’s Aran Islands in 1934, when three young people sail to a neighboring island to see a Hollywood documentary being filmed—but only two return to tell the tale.
The play’s title refers to “Cripple” Billy (Dylan La Rocque), as he is routinely called by his fellow villagers—a young man who not only has a lame leg and arm but is an orphan, having lost his parents to the sea as a child. He was raised by two sisters, or “aunties,” who love him fiercely—Eileen (Carmen Tunis) and Kate (Mary Price Moore)—and who both run the town’s meager store.
The now elderly aunties worry that Billy spends too much time reading books and staring at cows, but they don’t think any lass would want him anyway. The main lass in town, Helen (Makena Margolin), is often angry and physically violent, but in an amusing way. She boldly describes how she got back at a priest after he touched her “arse” and brazenly makes fun of Billy and his dead parents. She also regularly pounds on her younger brother Bartley (Ronan Walsh). Like Lucy in the Peanuts comic giving out questionable five-cent advice while hurting poor Charlie Brown, Helen’s aggressiveness is funny because it’s both strong and childish.
That childishness applies to many of the villagers in this secluded part of Ireland, which the residents say (as a running gag) “must not be so bad” if people ranging from a French dentist to a Black person to a documentary filmmaker go there. The frankness of childlike folk can be delightful—and these do make us giggle complicitly—but when grown people act that way even when asked not to, one starts to wonder if their rusticity is enough of an excuse for bad behavior.
For instance, Billy calmly tells people not to call him “cripple” but they simply ask him why not. Billy is also beaten not only by Helen but boatman Babbybobby (Patrick Peterson) for lying to him, until Billy bleeds. And town gossip extraordinaire Johnnypateenmike (Karl Schott)—cunning and intrepid as a Fox news reporter hyping up minor neighborly squabbles—plies his wheelchair-bound alcoholic mother Mammy (Kip Hogan) with drink despite the sage advice of Dr. McSharry (Floyd Harden), with mother and son also openly cursing at each other like sailors.
Amazingly, all of this is rendered hilarious through McDonagh’s language. The invested cast delivers the repeating rhythms and Irish-lilting dialogue of these quirky characters well, amusing us as they interact—at least through Act I. Though still compelling, the structure of the second act is somewhat flatter, and the cast may seem somewhat less energetic as a result, with American accents showing through.
Scene changes also seem to take longer in the second act, adding further drag. At one point, several raw eggs are broken over a character’s head—yes, real ones! haha—and cast members clean up the mess with a dustpan afterward, though a mat underneath might more quickly be folded up and carried off stage.
But the set itself, designed by Spencer Richardson, is aesthetically pleasing in earth tones and painted stone walls, creating a fittingly bucolic tone. Costumes by Christina Bayer are also well designed—in natural fabrics like tweed, wool and linen—helping transport us in time and place. Sound design by Jessica Rivera similarly evokes place, with sounds of the sea and Irish music played between scenes.
All nine actors are effective as well, with La Rocque believable in the title role of Billy, and sympathetic in his sometimes physically demanding scenes, even one in which he is supposed to be “acting.” Walsh as Helen’s candy-obsessed younger brother Bartley remains especially immersed in his charming character, even when covered in egg yolk. And Tunis and Moore as the two aunties work well together, especially in their opening dialogue that is almost like a duet. Tunis goes on to infuse Eileen with palpable passion worrying over Billy.
The characters and Irish-tragic story of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” are rendered memorable by the entire cast, however dark the comedy sometimes leans. We are drawn in by characters who seem so very different from us, saying and doing things we might only wish to sometimes. Until the mirror of our complicit laughter reveals we are perhaps not much “better” than them—and we might then forgive ourselves as much as them for being human.
“The Cripple of Inishmaan” continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Aug. 20, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $14 to $24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit LBPlayhouse.org. Run time is two hours and thirty minutes, with intermission. Proof of vaccination and masks required.