Published On: Fri, May 26th, 2017

‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ at Palm Beach Dramaworks Finds Humor in Cruelty

By Nicholas Palmieri

Laura Turnbull as Kate and Elizabeth Dimon as Eileen in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Photo by Alicia Donelan Photography

Laura Turnbull as Kate and Elizabeth Dimon as Eileen in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Photo by Alicia Donelan Photography

Palm Beach Dramaworks chooses a comedic play to close out its 2016-2017 season: “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” Know what type of humor it is, however: within the first few minutes, a pair of older women go from worrying about the young physically disabled boy they care for to going back and forth about just how ugly and undesirable they think their little “Cripple Billy” is.

What could have been a mean-spirited slog, became something hilarious and heartwarming in the hands of Dramaworks. Written by Martin McDonagh, film director and writer of “Seven Psychopaths” and “In Bruges,” the play takes place in 1934 and centers on a small island town off the coast of Ireland, where a documentarian’s arrival allows the disabled resident to see a future for himself that he wouldn’t have on the island.

The two previously mentioned women, played by Elizabeth Dimon and Laura Turnbull, exemplified the melding of the play’s opposing modes of operation. They are simultaneously outwardly mean behind Cripple Billy’s back as well as truly loving and caring towards him, and their small habits of stone-talking and candy-eating provide humor while letting us in on their mental states. Everything they do provides an emotional core for the play with memorable comedy imbued into it. Without these two great performances, I’m not sure the play would have been nearly as funny or as meaningful.

Adam Petherbridge as Billy Claven in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Photo by Alicia Donelan Photography

Adam Petherbridge as Billy Claven in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Photo by Alicia Donelan Photography

All other actors live up to their characters as well. The butt of most jokes, Adam Petherbridge as Billy created a character almost beyond pity, a character who took the jokes and dreamed on anyways. As for the others, Adelind Horan’s performance as the rowdy Helen particularly stuck out to me. Between her relentless jabs directly to Billy’s face and her maliciousness towards her brother, particularly in cracking eggs over his head, her character as written had so few redeeming qualities. Yet somehow, Horan takes that and, without losing any of the edge, somehow makes it endearing. There’s cruelty in every character, but these actors base that cruelty in love and comedy.

Interestingly, the story ends up being more about the town residents as a whole than it is about Billy, which the title seemingly implies. With real-life documentarian Robert Flaherty in town, the themes lean more towards modernization and the emerging idea of selling oneself and one’s culture, and the plot deals with the effects of these on each of the characters. These themes could have gotten lost given how subtly they are portrayed, but with such memorable actors, I’d say Dramaworks succeeds in representing it truthfully.

Adam Petherbridge as Billy Claven in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Photo by Alicia Donelan Photography

Adam Petherbridge as Billy Claven in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Photo by Alicia Donelan Photography

There isn’t too much in the way of lighting and sound design, and ultimately that works for the sparse island town. The set design, however, uses an

interesting tactic to portray that simplicity. Between scenes, a series of four stand-alone set pieces spin and reassemble themselves into whatever set the scene calls for. Every one of the configurations looks natural and gives off a different small-town vibe for the actors to play against.

Ultimately, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” was a much more fun experience than I expected. There are a ton of genuinely funny jokes, as long as you’re willing to expand your idea of humor, as well as a number of thought-provoking ideas. And in terms of the production itself? Dramaworks has yet another winner here.

“The Cripple of Inishmaan” runs through June 4. Tickets are $66 and can be purchased via phone at (561) 514-4042 or online at palmbeachdramaworks.org.

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