Jim Finnegan's daughter is never onstage during Ion Theatre Company's current The Cripple of Inishmaan, but in a way, she's the busiest character of the bunch. When she's not boning the town's giddy young men, she's likely off varnishing the truth about the sizes of their johnsons and the shapes of their butts. In other words, she makes a serious case for the boredom that consumes Inishmaan, a backwater community in the Aran Islands off Ireland's West Coast. These people are in the end stage of a horrid case of island fever—one pudding-faced shop owner talks to stones for her inspirations, while a self-appointed town crier regales the village with late-breaking blockbusters about a sheep born with no ears and a cat's losing battle with a goose.
He also announces the arrival of a big-time American movie crew, there to film The Man of Aran (a real-life Robert Flaherty documentary). It's at this point that orphaned Billy Claven, crippled at the limbs and shoulders and afflicted with TB, enters the creepy tale; by curtain, Ion has told his story with the dark comedic flair on which the group has built its rep. Playwright Martin McDonagh is almost merry in coloring his characters with quirky affectations—Glenn Paris directs accordingly, and you'll like what he does with the subtext. By all means, see and enjoy this play.“Cripple Billy” (Jason Connors) will get his chance at stardom as he tries out for a role in the film, but not before this collection of idiots has its way with him. Deformed and parentless, he's an easy target, at once defended and vilified by townsfolk desperately clutching at straws to justify their existence—that desperation is eerily quiet in some characters and downright palpable in others. Paris knows exactly who those people are on both ends of the spectrum, and he's crafted the mix thoughtfully and with extreme due diligence to physical type.
Still, something doesn't ring true about the setting. To this point, the really big news of the world made its way to this tiny outpost via rowboat and/or word-of-mouth—but after all, it's 1934 (you wouldn't know that without looking at the program), and a global economic depression is well underway, colored by the drumbeat of an emergent Nazism. Surely, somebody in Inishmaan has seen fit to snag a radio or two amid all the adverse buzz out there (the Mundy sisters lived and died by the radio in 1936 in the Ireland-set Dancing at Lughnasa, and their story was none the worse for it). This tale could have benefited from the hindsight history generously provides, especially since history is such a major part of Ireland's place in the public mind.
But the production values carry a lot of the day. Pretty Morgan Trant has it all as gritty, toilet-tongued Helen, Billy's love interest and an expert marksman when the weaponry involves raw eggs. Walter Ritter's snobby JohnnyPateenMike couldn't look any further down his nose as he fans the town's flames with gossip that, in Billy's words, “would bore the head off a dead bee.”
And Ion itself plays a major role in the show's success. It recently left its former digs at Mission Valley's Academy of Performing Arts, reportedly amid its owner's financial support of last November's Proposition 8—but there's no quit in these peeps. They quietly dust themselves off with each adversity (there've been several), all the while gaining a loyal and decidedly well-deserved base of patrons. This review is based on the opening-night performance of April 25. The Cripple of Inishmaan runs through May 10 at The Lyceum space, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $20-$30. 619-544-1000, www.iontheatre.com.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.