BWW Review: EPAC Strikes Gold with CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
What's better than modern Irish theatre? Not much, if you're a true theatre lover, and it's no secret. The Irish Rep theatres in Chicago and New York know it, lovers of Yeats and Shaw know it. The patois of Irish speech patterns, the black humor of the Irish soul, and the eternal optimism to be found in the worst of times in its history all lend themselves to the stage. Unfortunately it's hard to lure people into an awareness of Irish theatre in most of the United States (outside of Villanova University, which specializes in Irish drama studies), but sometimes fate takes a hand in helping out.
Particularly, a certain teen idol of sorts decided it was time to prove he could really act. Teen idol Daniel Radcliffe, who first shook off the idea that he was a child actor by presenting all of himself to Broadway audiences in EQUUS in 2007, then took a limited run at the Cort Theatre on Broadway after playing "crippled Billy" in THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMANN on the West End in 2014. Martin McDonough never could have asked for better publicity (or, truly, a better production).
CRIPPLE is a kinder, gentler dark comedy, or tragicomedy, based indirectly on some trutH. McDonough found that American film director had visited the Aran island of Inishmore in 1934 in order to film his classic THE MAN OF ARAN. With that slim premise, and a tale of a disabled young man over on the coast who hates his life, true Irish dramedy was spun.
Edward Fernandez of Ephrata Performing Arts Center has taken McDonough's slight but delightful work in hand, and given it a solid perch. Relative newcomer Brian Huff brings Billy, an intelligent young man with cerebral palsy, a waifish quality along with some brooding charm, and turns the introverted young man into a character of real substance and a canny ability to generate a plot or two. His "aunties," who have raised him since his parents died, are Eileen and Kate, EPAC veterans Tricia Corcoran and Elizabeth Pattey, village storekeepers and custodians of eggs and of tinned peas for the locals. They're grumpy but goodhearted, with odd tendencies - most of the village has odd tendencies, admittedly - to talk with small rocks and to find time for tea at the drop of a customer's hat.
Sean Deffley is Bartley, school chum of Billy, devourer of all candies that the village store does not stock, and unfortunate brother of the slightly vicious Helen, played by Rachael Opdenaker, who pulls off one of the most charmingly irritating young women in modern theatre. Helen has a temper, a high opinion of her looks, and a certain... how shall we say it... way with an egg. To explain it is to spoil the great humor of her part. She is, of course, Billy's unattainable dream, and she intends to be the beautiful star of the upcoming film.
Rounding out the major cast are Preston Schreffler as Babbybobby, a gentle soul of a fisherman with a dead wife whose illness was perhaps much like Billy's current one, and John Kleimo, who owns the show, as Johnnypateenmike, the local news distributor - otherwise known as the gossip mill. He fancies himself a purveyor of the important news of the town, and trades his gossip with Billy's aunties for eggs and tinned peas, but Kleimo makes him the heart of the piece. He's well meaning to all but his mother, and lives for what little excitement he can drum up out of the village's mostly boring doings (the goose bit a cat's tail; a feud must start!).
With nothing to do but to read books, well past those any of the other villagers may, and occasionally taking solace in staring at the cows, Billy isn't quite sure whether he'd rather be dead or gone rather than live around the casual, no-harm-intended cruelty of the rest of the village. And it's that problem that triggers the rest of the thin, slightly-unbelievable-but-it's-Irish, plot once he learns of the movie to be made on the island. Without humor the tale would be nothing, but with its humor, the story is indeed everything.
Illnesses take a turn for the worse. Helen discovers there's more than one way to let out her violent tendencies. Auntie Kate is talking to rocks and providing the answering voices. And then there are the deeper mysteries of the show: what is the truth about Billy's dead parents? And what will Billy do with himself, and how?
One of the best plays of the season in this area, and with fine set design by Braden Hooter as well as marvelous direction by Fernandez. Only on through Saturday the 17th, unfortunately. Visit ephrataperformingartscenter.com.