This review contains spoilers for the plot of “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”
There are plays where I can predict the general direction of the plot. When a play is listed as a romantic comedy, you can generally predict the kinds of antics that take place. Tragedies generally use plot twists and misunderstandings to drive home the suffering and loss of main characters. Walking into “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” I thought I had a general idea of the kind of plot I could expect from a dark comedy.
I was dead wrong.
The play is set in 1934 on the Aran Islands, off the western coast of Ireland. Based of the real-life screening of the documentary “Man of Aran,” the play focuses on “Cripple” Billy Claven, an orphan and social outcast, as he yearns for the opportunity to audition for the movie and escape the grueling life he has on the island.
From the beginning, I could tell this was going to be an authentic telling of the story, because everyone spoke in an old Irish accent; the brochure even had a small dictionary of terms that were not strictly English. For those not accustomed to thicker accents and dialects, the opening few minutes can be a little daunting, but once I did acclimate to the dialect, I discovered the dialogue was top-notch. The actors on stage were just as adept at portraying emotions through Irish accents as they were with U.S. accents. Not even the differing vocabulary as a true deterrent to understanding the story, as the primary offenders are accompanied by plenty of context to grasp their meaning.
One of the play’s biggest selling points is the characters. “Cripple Billy” is a very relatable young man who just wants the best out of his life without being judged for it. Though everyone in the town calls him “Cripple Billy,” he does not want to be defined by his disability. “Could you just call me Billy?” he says. My favorite character, though, is Johnnypateenmike, the town gossip and possibly the most unlikable character I have seen in years. Johnnypateenmike is always barging into any conversation that may earn him some juicy information. He is also trying to kill his 90-year-old mother with alcohol throughout the play, despite the doctor’s stern warnings against the beverage. No one takes him seriously, since he mostly spreads news about the neighbors’ pets dying.
The most engaging part of the play, however, was the unpredictability in its plot. Billy gets to audition for the play by giving Babbybobby, the local boatman, a note we, the audience, do not get to read. We assume this is something serious, even life-threatening, because Babbybobby promptly disregards the superstition of allowing cripple people on boats. The last act is perhaps one of the most violent emotional roller-coasters I have ever witnessed. Billy, when he returns, reveals the letter, a doctor’s note about his condition, was forged. Desperate to escape his life on the island, he lied so he could escape. Babbybobby, furious, remains silent as Billy apologizes profusely, explaining he needed to find purpose and meaning in his life. We assume this is going to be a touching, bonding moment. Instead, Babbybobby silently pulls out a metal wand, and pounces on Billy, beating him senseless toward stage-left as the lights go out. It looks like the play is over.
Instead, the lights come back on, with the doctor tending to his wounds, which look minor considering how brutal they sounded. This rollercoaster continues for the next twenty minutes, and it is only the superb acting on Billy’s part that makes the whole thing work. The joy on his face when he learns his parents killed themselves, not because he was a cripple, but because they wanted to take out their life insurance to pay for Billy’s medical bills; the anguish upon overhearing the truth, that his parents actually tried to kill Billy instead of themselves and how Johnnypateenmike was the one who paid for his medical bills; the confused relief when the girl he has had a secret crush on, a seemingly self-centered woman who enjoys beating people with raw eggs, actually agrees to go out with him, all of this manifests itself in Billy’s mannerisms. He whimpers, he laughs, he pleads and he cries. He is expressive, dramatic. He is real. He wears every terrible and heart-wrenching moment like any one of us in the audience would.
I can say, without a doubt, the acting is what sold this play for me. To the well-meaning aunties Billy lives with, to the insufferable Johnnypateenmike, their characters came to life in ways I did not expect.
Perhaps to drive the point home, Billy is alone on the stage as the play closes, as yet another bombshell drops on the audience: he has tuberculosis, and probably only has a few months to live. After all his successes and failures, he has seemingly lost the battle with his life, despite his efforts.
Instead, as he is coughing up blood, he looks at the blood on his hand, looks towards the audience and smiles. Despite it all, he has chosen to live, to push through, to survive.
And in that moment, so did I.