Review: The Cripple of Inishmaan (Druid Theatre)


Savage Irish humor at its finest


Tadhg Murphy in Ireland's Druid Theatre Company's The Cripple of Inishmaan, playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

Druid Theatre i/a/w Chicago Shakespeare presents
The Cripple of Inishmaan
Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Garry Hines
at Chicago Shakespeare, Navy Pier (map)
through March 27   |  tickets: $46-$56  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Ireland must not be such a bad place, if it has superlative companies like the Druid Theatre. Chicago Shakespeare’s World Stage Series brings us their tour with The Cripple of Inishmaan, in the nick of time for the wearin’ of the green. What could be finer around St. Patrick’s Day than a comedy that digs deep into a history of poverty, rife with all the leftover indignities of colonization, to uncover a deliciously perverse pride in one’s lowly and misbegotten state? (Well, maybe a pint—but that you can get for yourself.) Director Garry Hines and her consummate cast serve up Martin McDonagh’s rich stew of affable and self-effacing Irish humor, seasoned sharply with choice bites of insult. The Cripple of Inishmaan may be the lightest of McDonagh’s dark comedies but it still positions small town compassion cheek-by-jowl with small Tadhg Murphy in Ireland's Druid Theatre Company's The Cripple of Inishmaan, playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo by Ros Kavanaghtown cruelty. The mercurial smoothness with which Druid’s cast flashes and withdraws its teeth reveals acting professionalism of the highest order.

Of course, the entire play slyly rips into Robert Flaherty’s 1934 documentary, “Man of Aran”. JohnnyPateenMike’s (Dermot Crowley) news of the arrival of Flaherty’s American production company sends Inishmaan’s poverty-stricken locals scurrying after parts in the film. The young ones, rough and tumble Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne), sweets-loving Bartley (Laurence Kinlan) and Cripple Billy (Tadhg Murphy), especially hope for that big Hollywood break to get them out of their dead end town. Yet, they hardly know what they’re getting themselves into with Flaherty’s film.

Promoted as a portrayal of contemporary life on the islands, “Man of Aran” actually contrived its depiction of “primitive” Irish folk contending against barren, wild nature. Central to Flaherty’s Jack London-esque fantasy is an extremely dangerous-to-shoot shark hunt–a practice abandoned in the 19th century once paraffin for lighting, and then electricity, took over. Flaherty had to send to Claddagh in Galway for the one surviving fisherman who remembered how it was done in the old days. Of his own film, Flaherty himself said, “I should have been shot for what I asked these superb people to do, all for the sake of a keg of porter and five pounds apiece.”

But McDonagh’s comedy makes a virtue of desperation. Even if beggars can’t be choosers, they can still savagely skewer their daily conditions, saving the best bits for each other. By far, JohnnyPateenMike and his bedridden, but contentedly alcoholic, mother, redoubtably played by Nancy E. Carroll, make the funniest frenemies. But Billy’s crush, Helen, gets her licks in, whether smashing eggs against her brother’s head or bluntly telling Billy that his parents killed themselves because of him. “Would you love you if you were you? You barely love you and you are you.” Damn right, it’s terribly cruel—but, then, you have to be there for the delivery to laugh at it.

Beggars can also dream big. If JohnnyPateenMike can obtain his news, by hook or by crook, to trade for provisions at Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Eileen’s Druid The Cripple of Inishmaan. Liam Carney, Tadhg Murphy in mirror reflection. Photo by Robert Day.(Dearbhla Molloy) general store, then, by hook or by crook, Billy can vie for a seat in BabbyBobby’s (Liam Carney) boat to ferry him, along with Helen and Bartley, to Inishmore where the filming is taking place. Poor cripple boy that he is, his long, outside shot comes through and his unexpected departure tears a hole in small Inishman’s social fabric.

The Cripple of Inishmaan is nothing less than a slalom run of emotional and plot twists and turns. Druid’s cast hugs every curve like Olympians, belying the axiom that it’s the people who know you who can be the most ruthless about your failings and shortcomings—and yet, compassion and caring also emerge from the most unexpected places. McDonagh mocks Flaherty’s condescending fiction about simple and rugged Irish folk, but just as paradoxically celebrates the human power to create fiction in the face of harsh and banal reality. “A man who can’t lie is as dumb as a horse,” my Irish American mother once told me. You’ll find none of those here in this play.

Rating: ★★★★

Tadhg Murphy and Clare Dunne in Druid Theatre's 'The Cripple of Inishmaan'. Photo by Robert Day.





Liam Carney

Nancy E. Carroll
Mammy O’Dougal

Ingrid Craigie


Dermot Crowley

Clare Dunne
Slippy Helen

Laurence Kinlan


Dearbhla Molloy

Tadhg Murphy
Billy Claven

Paul Vincent O’Connor
Doctor McSharry


Creative Team

Playwright Martin McDonagh, Director Garry Hynes, Designer Francis O’Connor, Lighting Designer Davy Cunningham, Sound Designer John Leonard, Fight Director J. David Brimmer, Composer Colin Towns


Dermot Crowley and Tadhg Murphy in Druid Theatre's 'The Cripple of Inishmaan'. Photo by Robert Day.

Photo credits: Ros Kavanagh and Robert Day


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