The Druid Theatre Company is back! Thank the Irish stars: One of the most exciting theatre companies in the world, in my book! Next week (February 8-12), they will be at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, presenting Martin McDonough’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, directed by Garry Hynes. They were last in Washington with a riotously funny version of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. This is the second stop of their spring nationwide tour of the U.S. and Ireland, which is a part of Imagine Ireland, Culture Ireland’s year-long season of Irish arts in America in 2011. Next on the tour are Ann Arbor, Chicago, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Philadelphia, the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, and New Haven. So if you miss them here, catch them somewhere.
Back on February 1, 2009, I went to see the Druid Theatre’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, at the Atlantic Theater Company’s 20th Street venue in Manhattan, where it was holding forth. This play is an old friend of mine; I directed it at Live Arts in Charlottesville in 2000. And Garry Hynes is a director I greatly admire. In 1998 she was the first woman to receive Broadway’s Tony for directing another McDonough play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. As founder and artistic director of the Druid, it was she who originally found McDonough and until recently has produced all of his work. I once met her in the lobby of her Druid Theatre in Galway, in the West of Ireland, where I had gone to submit one of my own scripts for production consideration. She subsequently personally wrote me one of the kindest and most thorough rejection letters I’ve ever received.
The Cripple of Inishmaan is the first of McDonough’s Aran Islands trilogy, and it’s what provided his gateway into the theatre world. It’s the story of young “Cripple Billy,” who wants desperately to go off to seek a part in Robert Flaherty’s great film, Man of Aran (1934). I continue to believe that this is McDonough’s best play, despite all the hoopla over the more recent Pillowman and A Behanding in Seattle, as well as the other better-known early scripts in the Aran Islands Trilogy and the Leenane Trilogy, which find their humor in excessive violence and sadism. This is presumably the same production as the one in New York two years ago, albeit with a new cast, and if so, in my mind, it is definitive, superb in every way. At the same time, I’m proud (or deluded) enough to claim that in most respects I believe our own Charlottesville production, eleven years ago, held up nicely to the pros. The Druid’s 2009 set was darker, simpler in construct, and more realistically detailed. Characters were interpreted differently, as would be expected, but our local cast exhibited every bit the talent of the Irish professionals. The biggest difference between the two productions was in the concept and enactment of Billy, the crippled boy himself. In New York, Aaron Monaghan played him as a severely malformed and distorted creature, wheezing and dragging his right foot behind him, so twisted that he must walk on his ankle. Our own Billy, as played by Jonathan Megill, was more crippled in mind than body. Both were powerful performances, offering a wholly different perspective on Billy’s life, love, and ultimate fate. I found the Druid’s take added to the poignancy of the character in a way that I had first worried might be distracting and off-putting.
Clearly there’s room for many production variations. However performed, The Cripple of Inishmaan remains both a poignant play and a very funny play, especially when challenging the Catholic Church and the great Irish traditions of blarney and drink. At the same time, it’s astonishingly “sobering,” leaving its audiences questioning our grand old stereotypes and assumptions. I loved it!
As a side note, The Druid folks will be back again this summer for the Lincoln Center’s Summer Festival, July 24-31, 2011. They will be producing the American premiere of Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassle, following a tour of Ireland and the UK. Also directed by Garry Hines, the play follows the lives of two Dublin footballers through the battlefields of France.