The darkest of comedies, The Cripple of Inishmaan is about a cripple: Billy (Tadhg Murphy) lives on the remote Aran Island of Inishmaan. The plot involves many of the locals - some endearing, some annoying, some terrifying - all talking some of the tastiest talk to be heard onstage.
Billy lives with two old ladies (Dearbhla Molloy and Ingrid Craigie) who run the local grocery store; JohnnyPateenMike (Dermot Crowley) is the island's gossip who retails rumors, a kind of walking tabloid who will turn out to be the pivot of the plot. His ancient mother (Nancy E. Carroll) has been drinking herself to death for 65 years.
When Billy hears that Robert Flaherty's now-famous 1934 film, Man of Aran, is being filmed on a neighboring island, he decides this could be his chance to escape his punishing, boring, rural life where he stares at cows just for something to do. Slippy Helen (Clare Dunne), a violent, slutty girl who delights in pegging eggs at anyone or anything that irritates her, is the focus of Billy's longing. She and her younger brother, Bartley (Laurence Kinlan), talk a local fisherman, BabbyBobby (Liam Carney), into rowing them to the neighboring island where the movie is being made. Billy tags along, and then vanishes for months.
McDonagh's satire of Flaherty's romanticized Ireland - all heroics and sentimentality - comes from our seeing how unheroic these small, sometimes mean-spirited, profoundly lonely natives are.
McDonagh is generally considered to be the most successful young playwright in the English-speaking world (Philadelphia audiences recently saw both his Lieutenant of Inishmore and A Skull in Connemara). A wordsmith of savage imagination, his humor is often shocking, springing from unforeseen violence, as it does here.
Each time you think you know what's coming, you'll be wrong. Each time you laugh, you'll be sorry. The Cripple of Inishmaan has far more emotional depth and complexity of tone than many of McDonagh's other plays, and this textured production explores it all.
2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut St. Tickets: $20-$50. Information: 215-898-3900 or www.pennpresents.org.