While many theaters go for obvious holiday choices during the season of peace and joy, don't count Nimbus Theater in that crowd. Their December offering is Martin McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inishmaan," a play more bitter than sweet, more salty than sugared. This outrageously black comedy, however, is streaked with just enough light to make it a beacon in the darkest season of the year.
McDonagh, the award-winning author of "A Behanding in Spokane" (just opened in a Gremlin Theatre production) as well as the screenwriter for "In Bruges" and the recently released "Seven Psychopaths," sets the play on the isolated island of Inishmaan in 1934, during the real-life filming of the documentary "Man of Aran."
The denizens of this bleak western Ireland outpost are agog at the thought of a Hollywood film being shot in the vicinity, bringing with it the speculation that one or two locals might get whisked off to fame and fortune. Among the hopefuls is Billy, a crippled young orphan whose options in life appear limited. To the astonishment of his neighbors, Billy lands a screen test and a shot at a potential future.
Director Kari Hammer has assembled a fine ensemble to tell a complex story that both celebrates and skewers a variety of clichés of picaresque Irish culture. Karen Helfand Bix and Jane Hammill bring a heavy fatalism to their roles as the two "aunties" who have raised Billy and predict nothing but sorrow for his future ("Tears, death or worse," one of them dolefully remarks). Mark Groberski is hilariously predatory as Johnnypateenmike, the village purveyor of a toxic brew of gossip, stories and lies that passes for news. Seth Conover brings a wonderful sense of gob-smacked naivete to the role of Bartley, while Katie Adducci is the perfect foil as his profane, cynical and casually cruel sister. Eric Cohen and Jean Shore give broadly humorous performances as a local doctor and his poteen-swilling elderly patient.
The standouts in this strong cast, however, are Andrew Newman and Adam Scarpello. Newman's Billy is a poignant and realistic portrait of a teenager tentatively treading a path somewhere between dreams of glory and the reality of the low expectations that surround him. Scarpello gives a layered and subtle performance as Babbybobby, a local man whose seeming tolerance masks a tendency to sudden violence.
Ultimately "The Cripple of Inishmaan" is about storytelling, and it's bawdy, acidulous brew of interwoven tales simultaneously deceive and reveal as the characters rewrite them to suit their own, often secret, purposes. Nimbus Theatre's nicely realized production does this play justice, letting its essential humanity shine through its black humor.
Lisa Brock writes regularly about theater.