Addison — If nothing else, you’d have to give it up to Outcry Youth Theatre for sheer chutzpah — tackling the thick Irish accents and black comedy of Martin McDonagh’s 1997 play The Cripple of Inishmaan with teen actors could, in the wrong hands, go very, very wrong. Fortunately, director (and grown-up Outcry Theatre Artistic Director) Becca Johnson-Spinos matches her ambition to her actors’ talents and the production, apart from a few slightly perplexing artistic choices, is overall a success.
Inishmaan, 1934: It’s a nice little island, one supposes, if you don’t look too hard. I mean, Ireland can’t be too bad a place if an American filmmaker is coming all the way from Hollywood (California, don’t you know) to film a movie there, right? Billy Claven (played on opening night by Dylan Weand — each role is dual cast) is the eponymous hero of the piece, though he’d prefer if you’d just call him “Billy.” Disabled and sickly from birth, Billy was raised on the damp, depressing speck of an island off the Irish coast by a pair of well-meaning if slightly daft “aunties”, Kate (Jane Landrum) and Eileen (Camryn Smith) after his parents drowned under mysterious circumstances.
Just when Billy’s finding his hobbies of reading and staring at cows have started to pall, he gets the news from village gossip Johnnypateenmike (Elijah Harms) that Hollywood’s coming to call. Billy plays on the sympathies of local boatman BabbyBobby (Luke Williams) to take him to Inishmore to watch the movie (a real documentary filmed in the area in 1934 and titled Man of Aran, directed by Robert Flaherty) being made and, just maybe, audition for a part. Accompanying them are Billy’s unrequited crush, local tough girl Helen (Fallon Goldsmith), taking a break from her hobby of pegging eggs at anyone who earns her ire, and her sweet but dim little brother Bartley (Brayden Soffa). The four sail off to watch the filming, but only three of them return. It seems Billy’s off to make it big in America, without a word to his poor aunties, and not a person in the village wishing him well. But that’s really only the beginning of Billy’s journey, that can really only be deemed “comedic” in the sense that his pile of misfortunes becomes comically large by play’s end. Don’t look for a happy ending here, folks: they’re fresh out.
The actors, ranging in age from 15 to 18, conquer their first challenge credibly: the accents. Although no dialect coach is credited, the accents are decent throughout the cast, only wandering occasionally into “Lucky Charms” territory. Dylan Weand gives a terrific performance as Billy, manifesting Billy’s disabilities convincingly and, most importantly, consistently throughout the performance, and layering Billy’s frustration with the alternating cruelty and pity of his neighbors in without ever toppling into self-pity. Fallon Goldsmith brings a tough, tomboyish energy to her portrayal of Helen, village “bad girl” and Billy’s love interest, but softens the character convincingly by play’s end. She and her sweets-obsessed brother Bartley, played with amusing gravity by Brayden Soffa, brought great energy to their scenes together under Johnson-Spinos’ direction. Elijah Harms takes on the challenge of playing town “newsman” Johnnypateenmike with verve, practically vibrating out of his skin with outrage when his gossip isn’t sufficiently appreciated — or rewarded with foodstuffs. Some of his best scenes were with an amusingly broad Adrianna Kellaway as his mother, a ninety-year old woman in robust health despite her son’s attempts to provide her with sufficient liquor to kill herself off. And Luke Williams brings a soulfulness to his portrayal of young widower Babbybobby, making his occasional outbursts of violence all the more shocking. Overall, I was extremely impressed with the strong, mature choices made by these young actors, which were to their credit as well as the mark of a talented director’s hand at work.
The set, designed by Steve McMurray, is sparse, but effective, and Claudia Warner’s costumes had some lovely period-authentic touches (included several knit pieces and Bartley’s shorts-and-suspenders set). And while Jason Johnson-Spinos’ sound and lighting design was well-balanced and added to the mood of the production, a small nitpick: the lighting cues themselves were consistently early, making it obvious when scene changes were about to occur and taking me out of the action. Sheer repetition of the piece will likely correct this small oversight, and overall, I was impressed with what the technical team accomplished with likely minimal resources.
The real surprise of the evening was the choice from Johnson-Spinos to incorporate dance interludes throughout the piece — choreographed herself — that express the inner lives and emotions of the characters. These sequences, set to songs from artists as diverse as The Kinks to The Killers to Bob Dylan, were, I’d originally thought, a way of covering set transitions, but several later numbers were independent of any set changes and were simply an artistic choice on Johnson-Spinos’ part. The sequences were uniformly well-performed by the cast, and included some acrobatic moves, especially a stage dive or two from Weand, that had the moms in the audience gasping. Your mileage may vary as to the success of these additions. While it certainly worked to keep the energy up, which occasionally dipped towards the play’s latter half, it was tonally rather jarring in a few places, most notably in the final number, and added to the already over-long runtime of the play, which clocked in at three hours (with one fifteen minute intermission).
It’s a pleasure to see the next great crop of local talent in action, and to see a director who strives to push the envelope. I look forward to Outcry Youth Theatre’s next ambitious round of productions.