By Annette Hinkle
Small communities can be amazing places in which to live. But they can also be the source of stultifying existences in which every move is documented, reputations assigned rather than earned and a place from which many desperately long to escape.
That’s certainly true for the characters of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy which opens next Wednesday at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater. Stephen Hamilton directs this production and he readily admits he has been enamored of McDonagh’s work in general (and this play in particular) since he first read it in the mid-1990s.
“I love Irish plays,” admits Hamilton, “the heightened language, the joy juxtaposed with despair. There’s something really authentic about the light and dark existing at the same time. So often we spend time promoting light, looking at the bright side and ignoring the dark side.”
“The Irish don’t do that,” he adds. “They are able to seemingly live their lives with the sense of duality.”
Anyone who’s visited the wild west coast of Ireland can grasp that duality. The verdant green hills can suddenly turn dark and foreboding when a storm whips in off the sea, chilling a warm scene to the bone in minutes.
That’s Ireland for you — both in terms of the people and the place.
As a playwright, it’s certainly a sensibility McDonagh understands – and it’s where he sets much of his work, despite the fact he was born in London.
Set in 1934, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” is the first play in McDonagh’s Aran Island trilogy and it explores what happens to a tight knit group of people living in a remote community when Hollywood coms to town. As word spreads that director Robert Flaherty is shooting “Man of Aran” on the neighboring island of Inishmore, everyone in Inishmaan sees a chance to break out — especially Cripple Billy an orphan who has endured the taunts and cruelty of the island’s residents for his entire 18 years of life.
While the young man dreams of making it big in Hollywood, a question arises — how willing is Hollywood to cast a man with a disability in the role of a disabled character?
For Hamilton, that question led to some interesting philosophical considerations about his own casting choices — specifically in the case of Christopher Imbrosciano, the young actor who plays Cripple Billy.
It turns out, the actor has cerebral palsy in real life.
“Billy has this monologue in Act II where he describes his experience in Hollywood,” explains Hamilton. “He’s been taken from the islands to do a screen test and describes how the directors had decided not to use him — but to use a blond boy from Ft. Lauderdale who’s not crippled, but could act.”
“When reading this, I thought, ‘Am I going to be faced with this decision as well? Choosing someone authentic or someone else because they can do the role,” asks Hamilton. “Then Chris showed up and I didn’t have to chose.”
Ironically, in London a much different decision was made for an upcoming production of the play where Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) was cast as Cripple Billy. It’s not unusual. When it comes to casting disabled characters, talented actors with disabilities are frequently passed over by directors in favor of big names, which is why for actors like Imbrosciano, getting the opportunity to play someone like Cripple Billy is a dream come true.
“It’s a beautiful play. It’s hilarious, but people lose sight of that because it’s a dark comedy,” says Imbrosciano. “It’s pure delight then a sheer shift to dark and dreary.
“I love this play and have loved it for quite some time,” adds Imbrosciano who was afraid he would age out of the role before being given an opportunity to play it.
As an actor with cerebral palsy, Imbrosciano brings unique personal experience to the role and he understands how cruel and clueless people can be in terms of how they treat those with disabilities.
“I think there is something about living with a disability, having that experience, you can bring something totally different to the role because of that,” says Imbrosciano. “There’s a strength that you can find from the small random challenges every day. At the end of the day, everyone has challenges, it’s just different when yours are more apparent.”
“There’s a beautiful line in the show I’m obsessed with, and it goes, ‘Well, there are plenty round here just as crippled as me, only it isn’t on the outside it shows,’” adds Imbrosciano.
Among those who are most cruel to Cripple Billy is “slippy” Helen, the beautiful bully of Inishmaan played by Georgia Warner. Warner grew up on the East End and she sees many parallels between life here and on McDonagh’s island.
“It’s funny to be doing this show in the Hamptons where there is a similar sort of ‘everyone knows everyone else’s business,’” notes Warner. “The whole thing with this show is they have to keep themselves amused. Otherwise they’ll tear each other apart.”
For Warner, the cruelty stems from familiarity — to the point where most of the characters don’t even see their actions and words as being cruel at all.
“I think definitely there is a sense of being trapped,” says Warner. “Billy is Cripple Billy because that’s his role – that’s how they define themselves.”
When asked about the subtext in the play, Warner responds, “Part of what’s intriguing about this show is the lack of subtext. In life, people say one thing and mean another. But in this show they voice the thought that’s in their head so it comes across very cruel.”
“No one has a filter,” she says.
Ultimately, it seems the deeper meaning in the cruelty may be embodied in the very history of Ireland itself and the suffering that generations of Irish have experienced at the hands of the British. That’s not incidental in McDonagh’s world and it explains the motives of many of his characters.
“At a certain point you have two options – stand up and fight or kick the dog — or yourself,” says Warner. “If you take enough punches at some point, you have to throw one.”
“McDonagh goes to a place,” she adds. “He makes you look through your fingers, it’s so hard to watch. He strips away extras so you get the essence of characters. It’s about survival of the spirit and what do you need to keep afloat.”
Hamilton would tend to agree that the sense of hopelessness — as well as the rebel spirit — is something alive and well in McDonagh’s citizens to the point that their cruelty makes sense to audiences.
“I think you’ll be able to see the bad behavior is justified,” adds Hamilton. “The things that happen on this little island, to a great extent, we can see in our own little community in some ways.”
“There’s something about islands….”
“The Cripple of Inishmaan” by Martin McDonagh runs Wednesdays through Sundays (8 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights, 7:30 p.m. all others) May 22 to June 9, 2013 at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. The cast features Evan Daves, Margaret Dawson, Tom Gustin, Christopher Imbrosciano, Kristen Lowman, Tuck Milligan, Joe Pallister, Janet Sarno and Georgia Warner. Tickets are $30 ($28 members/$10 students). Order online at GuildHall.org or call 324-4050 starting May 22.