Gossip Folk

by Emily Garber

In a town where people drink their mothers to death, priests can’t keep their hands off teenage girls’ “arses” and a sheep born without ears is more important than Hitler coming to power, there isn’t much to look forward to.

Meet the people of Inishmaan – rural folk living on a three-mile stretch of rocky land on the west coast of Ireland. They are not criminals but, rooted so deeply in a life void of any color or importance, they are always capable of harm.

“The Cripple of Inishmaan,” written by playwright Martin McDonagh, links its story to a real event – the making of a historic documentary in the mid-1930s, “Man of Aran” by Robert Flaherty. The arrival of this Hollywood director to Inishmaan, who feels the remote coastal region is interesting enough to make a film, pulls the characters out of their humdrum lives.

At the center of the action is “Cripple Billy,” (Toby Rust) a teenage orphan with mangled limbs who has lived with two foster aunts since his parents drowned in an effort to be free from their burden. Upon hearing the news of the filming, Billy is determined to drag his withered arm, bad leg and flickering hope to the making of the documentary.

“Cripple Billy, more than anyone, wants to escape this small town,” said Jenna Papke, the director of the Xperimental Theater production. Billy has it worse than most, since he is constantly reminded by his ailment with the mere mention of his name.

The local gossip peddler, Johnnypateenmike (Colin Waitt), sees great opportunity in the filming – it’s genuine news after years of having to get by on trivial bits of information. His personality is another affirmation that the townspeople of Inishmaan are hopelessly simpleminded.

“It’s small town life to the extreme,” Papke said. “It’s a very slow existence, so gossip, in a way, keeps them going.”

Johnnypateenmike, the sole character to wear a touch of color, is mostly to blame for the play’s tragic plot.

“He stirs the plot,” said Waitt, who plays Johhnypateenmike. He initially tells Cripple Billy about the filming, and it’s Cripple Billy’s quest for this recognition that leads to the ironic twist in the end.

The play captures both the humor and sorrow of people trapped in lives free of cultural stimulus or economic advantages. Repeatedly throughout, characters proclaim how proud they are of Ireland, ironically contradicting what is happening on stage.

“It’s desperation in their voices,” Waitt said. “Life is pretty bleak. It’s almost their way of reassuring themselves.”

Papke said, “Ireland has been trampled on over the last 100 years. Ö There was the potato famine and now England has them in their back pocket. (The people of Inishmaan) feel powerless as a people and powerless a nation. Ireland isn’t a good place and they know it, and they hate that they know it.”

No one has convinced them that if you can’t say something nice, it’s best to keep your mouth shut – when “Man of Aran,” is screened on an old sheet in act two, it’s called “a pile of fecking shite.”

While hardly filled with the milk of human kindness, the people of Inishmaan are nevertheless sympathetic. They are all as crippled and withered as Billy, and in this comedy as black as Irish tea, their town is their burden.