The University of Houston School of Theatre brings a bit of Ireland to Houston, re-creating the small-mindedness, boredom and bickering of inhabitants of a coastal island, while etching them vividly, in a dark comedy by acclaimed playwright Martin McDonagh.
The Irish accents are as thick as peat, and the costumes authentic down to the stains on them, so it's never possible to forget for a minute where you are, and, no, it's not Finian's Rainbow, for playwright McDonagh sees the pettiness and meanness in ordinary lives, the penchant for cruelty, but also the glimmer of hope and the shimmer of love. The play is well-directed by Steven W. Wallace, who keeps the pace interesting even when the dialogue is desultory -- he sees the heart and desperation behind the petty cruelties, veiled in the ignorance and provincialism endemic to small towns everywhere.
The fulcrum on which the plot turns is the filming of a movie on a nearby island, and Cripple Billy's desire to get included in it. The cast is superb, and Wallace has achieved mostly ensemble acting, so the ambience is largely seamless. Joshua Kyle Hoppe portrays Billy, and captures his longing, courage and humor. Hoppe's portrayal is nuanced, quietly powerful -- and memorable. Also strong is Christine Arnold as Helen, forthright, hearty, and given to cruel pranks on her brother Bartley, well-played by Jason Ronje. Philip Orazio plays the island's gossip Johnnypateenmike, and fleshes out the interesting and varied role. Kayla Brown plays Kate, and Laurel Schroeder plays Eileen, both shopkeepers and the adoptive aunts of the orphaned Billy; both actresses have wonderful comic timing.
Colin David plays Babbybobby, a brusque, strong-willed boatman given to sudden violence, and he finds the humanity and humor behind the brutality. Tim Sailer as Doctor McSharry seems less Irish than the others, and Christly Taylor Guedry as an alcoholic, wheel-chaired ancient veers into parody. Poteen (Irish moonshine) is never far from her, or from Babbybobby.
The set of a small general store, designed by Clint Allen, is effective and functions well. Billy's monologue in Act Two is unfortunately staged too far forward -- the play is housed in the Jose Quintero Theatre, which has a thrust stage, so much of the audience sees only the back or side of Billy's head during a crucial and moving passage. Director Wallace has done the playwright justice, in re-creating the atmosphere of Inishmaan, finding the lilt in Irish speech, and finding the warmth beneath the cruel rejoinder. And he adds Irish wit in the warnings to turn off cellphones, and in the taking of bows.
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The play ends on a hopeful note -- or does it? -- for playwright McDonagh has his own nuances. McDonagh is known for his The Beauty Queen of Leenane and for The Pillowman, and the University of Houston has done well to mount this original, humorous, moving and well-crafted play, which has the ring of truth.
Savvy staging, superb acting and rich brogues create an authentic vision of a small coastal Irish town, as an acclaimed playwright and storyteller takes us on an exciting and deeply humorous journey into the heart of humanity.
The Cripple of Inishmaan continues through April 29 at the Jose Quintero Theatre, University of Houston, 133 Wortham. For information or ticketing, call 713-743-2929 .