Stage: Wednesday, February 6, 2003
A Skull in Connemara\r\nThru March 9 at Stage West, 3055 S University, FW. $20-24. 817-STG-WEST.
Leenane Me

Stage West tamesIrish bad boy McDonagh.


Pundit and theatrical impresario Robert Brustein was probably giddy on the fumes of his own byline when he declared the young Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh “the first great dramatist of the twenty-first century.” But it’s true that over the last five years a frenzy of McDonagh productions has flooded across international borders and into dozens of languages. Theater companies — no doubt exhausted by the rampant irony and self-conscious dialogue offered by McDonagh’s fellow upstarts — exult in the kind of crude, hostile honesty his characters express. They scheme, berate, and react to one another in the very specific world of impoverished, rural, lonely Ireland, whose palpable circumstances reflect and inspire the characters’ misbehavior. There’s not a whiff of metaphor, or any other authorial intrusion, about these folks.

As the world’s most vibrant purveyor of what might be called the “well-made white-trash play,” McDonagh deserves to be recognized as an invigorating breath of whiskey-and-cigarette-foul air. But what startles in Stage West’s current production of A Skull in Connemara is how gently and sympathetically director Jim Covault handles McDonagh’s comic glee at the nasty, reprehensible actions that spring from the disinterment of a grave. Covault has cast a quartet of very charismatic performers who forsake the shrill, exaggerated tone so characteristic of many McDonagh stagings for a (relatively) low-key, melancholy lunacy. Even the violence is played with a non-malicious, kids-on-the-playground kind of energy. Anyone who caught Theatre Three’s pitiless staging of McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane a few years ago can attest to how corrosive and hopeless his scenes of family interdependence can be played. McDonagh can be sprayed at audiences like battery acid, but Stage West’s warmer currents of feeling have advantages, too.

The central character of Skull is Mick (Jerry Russell), a gravedigger dogged by a rumor that won’t be laid to rest. Was his late wife Oona accidentally killed in a “drink drive” accident with inebriated Mick at the wheel, or did he bludgeon her beforehand, stick her corpse in the front seat, and drive their car into a wall? Guilt over the event has driven him into near-isolation, drinking himself senseless in his shadowy, inhospitable shanty. His only regular visitor is gossipy neighbor Maryjohnny (Carolyn Wickwire), a widow who cadges from Mick’s bottomless supply of hooch and maybe has designs toward replacing the lost wife.

The skeletal Oona may be the least, er, fleshed-out presence here, but she still dominates. Every autumn, bodies that are seven years buried on the church grounds must be disinterred to make room for new burials. There are complications in this year’s funereal harvest, chief of which is Mick’s duty to dig up Oona. He’s to be assisted by Maryjohnny’s thick-headed teenage grandson Mairtin (a hilariously self-involved Justin Flowers), who enjoys girls and American tv more than hard labor. Mick will be supervised by Mairtin’s brother Thomas (Carl Savering), a police officer with a twisted predilection for tormenting Mairtin and an equally perverted taste for the gruesome crimes and accidents that occur around Leenane. Given all that speculation about the real cause of Oona’s death, Thomas eagerly stands over Mick’s shoulder in the graveyard to witness any discovery.

McDonagh has been accused of capitalizing on the worst stereotypes to create minstrel shows of Celtic cutthroatery. His caustic comedy arguably derives from its sheer lack of hypocrisy. There’s no mask of humble Irish Catholic laborer — or, at least, it’s a very thin one — worn by these folks to conceal their thieving, boozing, conniving, homicidal tendencies. But the Emerald Isle can claim no exclusive rights on the heart’s dark impulses, which are, in turn, the plot generators of great theater. It’s this sense of universal generosity that Stage West’s cast members extend to their roles. Under director Covault’s watch, they are less a pack of desperate rodents gnawing in a confined space than they are lonely souls whose power plays are efforts at connection. Wickwire as the compulsive bingo player Maryjohnny is several notches down the volume knob of the typical screeching McDonagh harridan; her concern for Mick is not merely the product of a busybody’s campaign. And veteran Russell excels at those moments of silence wherein his weathered face conveys spirit-breaking regret.

With this version of Skull, Stage West seems intent on lingering with admiration over the Irish love of gossip, ghost stories, and family mythologies in much the way the company did with a previous production of The Weir, written by McDonagh peer Conor McPherson. Anecdotes saturated in death and decay are bounced from Mick to Thomas to Mairtin with blithe conviction at Oona’s graveside — children drowning in slurries, a pair of twins slaughtered by a stray tractor, a dead cow raided for meat by a hungry family in the days and weeks following its demise in the field. They are the stuff of workplace chitchat in this fatalistic rural Ireland. It’s a weirdly poignant scene of generational bonding among three men that few companies but Stage West would identify within this misanthropic playwright’s hardscrabble universe.

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