“When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees,” said the Irish writer Edna O’Brien. “Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious.” For further insight, see Billy, the eponymous protagonist of Martin McDonagh’s hilarious and frequently moving comedy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, a revival of which opened this week on Broadway and was originally part of Michael Grandage’s West End season in London. Like those trees, “Cripple Billy,” as he’s often called, endures a fairly bleak existence with considerable determination, embodying, in the process, the spirit of the Irish people.
You can’t help but root for him. Living on Inishmaan, a remote island off the western coast of Ireland, in 1934, Billy -played by Daniel Radcliffe – has few prospects and little to do except stare at cows. He’s physically handicapped and, as is often the indelicate topic of conversation, an orphan whose parents died — accidentally? purposefully? — at sea. His caretakers, sisters Eileen (Gillian Hanna) and Kate (Ingrid Craigie), are equally aimless, dependent on the services of local gossip hound Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt) for news of the world outside their dreary grocery.
His chief tidbit of the day, as the play begins, is the arrival of the director Robert J. Flaherty, who has come to the island to cast his famous documentary, The Man of Aran. Despite his handicap and the jeers of his various observers, Billy seems determined to make a go of it and tricks the widowed boatman Babbybobby (Padraic Delaney) into taking him to the audition along with his not-so-secret crush, Helen McCormick (Sarah Greene). This act, and his subsequent months-long disappearance, makes Billy the talk of the town and nearly destroys his doddering “pretend aunties,” who, despite their surliness, care for him as they would a son.
It’s a well-worn cliché that humor can make bearable the worst of situations (including, indeed, life itself), and it applies almost universally to the characters of The Cripple of Inishmaan. Inishmaan is a small world dominated by petty grievances, rumormongering, and quiet desperation. But there is joy there too, expressed in a brash, dark style that can only be described as distinctly Irish. The excellent Sarah Greene, playing the fiery tempered and attention-craving Helen, embodies this dichotomy with explosive energy. Johnnypateenmike and his wheelchair-bound Mammy (June Watson), meanwhile, present a perfect picture of mutually dependent dysfunction. In McDonagh’s capable, sensitive hands, their thinly veiled misery is our pleasure.
Since 1998, The Cripple of Inishmaan has been staged twice off-Broadway. This first Broadway production, a transplant from London, sports a terrific revolving set in triptych (courtesy of Christopher Oram) and superb direction by Grandage. Radcliffe, famous for playing another beloved orphan who need not be named, seems right at home, if slightly familiar, in the role of Billy, hobbling along on a bad leg, his left arm perpetually frozen, Radcliffe’s fidelity to the physicality of his character is impressive. Since his film days, we’ve seen Radcliffe play a variety of character types, but the parameters of the plucky underdog still seem the most natural fit.
It may end a bit too tidily (and cheerily), but McDonagh’s spell is too well cast to inspire any cynicism. Ultimately, The Cripple of Inishmaan is a fairly straightforward coming-of-age tale, and while the plot occasionally surprises, there’s little doubt of its final trajectory. McDonagh’s gift for storytelling and this cast’s performances are transcendent nonetheless; together, they are the green thumb that make this play blossom.