Lonesome West

Famous Door Theatre Company

at A Red Orchid Theatre

Playwright Martin McDonagh lives on the fault line between two Irelands. Like James Joyce, Brendan Behan, and dozens of others, he acknowledges the brutality of Irish life. His plays–among them The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, and The Cripple of Inishmaan, all produced here in the last few years–are filled with cruelty, murder, and noisy, drunken desperation. But unlike Joyce and company, he cannot let go of the other, sweeter Ireland.

Born and raised in London by Irish expats who returned to their native Galway when he was a teenager, leaving him to fend for himself in England, McDonagh reeks of ambivalence about his roots, both ethnic and literary. Despite his English upbringing, all his plays so far have been set on the west coast of Ireland, near where his parents were born–the same picturesque world of bogs and tiny villages and lonely cottages found in William Butler Yeats’s poetry and John Millington Synge’s plays. McDonagh doesn’t valorize the view of Ireland as quaint and charming, but like a rebellious adolescent he can’t turn his back completely on the romanticized Ireland he rejects.

The Lonesome West is a play set on a confluence of fault lines, at once cynical and sentimental, cruel and sweet, filled with violence and with the hope for peace. It is both fatally disenchanted with Ireland and nostalgic for that enchantment. Two middle-aged bachelor brothers living in the same small cottage are united by their knowledge of a terrible crime. One brother, Valene, is blackmailing the other, Coleman, financially and emotionally for his murder of their father. But their sickness runs much deeper than the patricide, which is fairly recent.

Set in a village, Leenane, in County Galway, the play recalls another work set on the west coast of Ireland, Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Both feature a man who claims to have killed his father and a lonely young woman who sets her heart on a man she can’t have–her name in McDonagh’s play, Girleen, even evokes Synge’s Pegeen, and both sell poteen, a liquor distilled from potatoes.

It would be unfair to call The Playboy of the Western World sentimental: in its day it was considered harsh and unromantic. On opening night at the Abbey Theatre in 1907, the audience rioted, in part because Synge dared have an Irish girl talk about her underwear. Even an oblique reference to female sexuality was too much for the Irish then, but time has softened our impression of Synge’s play. Today a theater company has to work hard to keep the story from becoming Irish tourist-board kitsch.

It’s the kitschy side of Synge that McDonagh is out to deflate. Like Pegeen, Girleen is lonely–but she’s much more up-front about her sexual desires, constantly goading the male characters with jokes about selling herself to men on the street. In one of McDonagh’s more brilliant turns, Girleen is silent about her feelings only when she’s faced with the one man for whom she has feelings. McDonagh’s plays are filled with characters who easily spout the cruelest put-downs and become tongue-tied when they want to speak from the heart, but Girleen’s inarticulateness is particularly touching–in part because Corryn Cummins does a superb job of playing all the facets of her contradictory character. McDonagh also relies on a bit of the old Irish schmaltz, however, wringing emotion from small moments.

You’d expect an urban, cynical writer like McDonagh to repudiate schmaltz. But he’s far too complex a playwright to follow a predictable or easy line. “People should leave a theater with the same feeling that you get after a really good rock concert,” McDonagh said in an interview. “You don’t want to talk about it, you just let it buzz into you. I can’t stand people analyzing things. A play should be a thrill like a fantastic roller coaster.” Since McDonagh violates all our expectations by the end of the first act, The Lonesome West is thrilling indeed.

McDonagh also claims to be more influenced by movies than theater. In his words: “Theatre bored the socks off me.” Still, The Lonesome West is packed with theatrical references, not just to Synge but to Sam Shepard (the competing brothers recall True West) and Eugene O’Neill, notably Long Day’s Journey Into Night. One of the play’s first images is a shotgun on the wall, reminding us of Anton Chekhov’s dictum: if there’s a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last. A less ambivalent writer would have just admitted he loved theater or written plays without theatrical references.

McDonagh is playing a complicated game, constantly reinterpreting and re-creating Ireland–a postmodern game also played by Salman Rushdie, whose works undermine orientalist views of Islam and the Indian subcontinent. McDonagh implicitly explores the nationalistic roots of Irish mythmaking, the search for an “authentic” existence. He turns everything Irish on its head, then the minute we’re used to that view, he turns it on its head again. One moment he reveals the ugliness behind Irish beauty, the next the beauty in Irish squalor, and the moment after that the ugliness again.

It takes a very good company to mine everything in McDonagh’s work. Northlight Theatre has given deft, convincing productions of The Cripple of Inishmaan and A Skull in Connemara. But it wasn’t until I saw Famous Door’s The Lonesome West in the intimate confines of A Red Orchid, where the violence seemed darker and more real and the quiet moments more intense, that I realized how powerful a playwright McDonagh can be.

Director Calvin MacLean negotiates this complex story with the grace of someone used to making complicated work seem easy. (Two seasons ago he turned Joshua Sobol’s badly structured but powerful Ghetto into a masterpiece.) And his remarkable four-member cast, led by Dan Rivkin as Valene and Roderick Peeples as Coleman, are equally at home with McDonagh’s dark, violent scenes and marvelously funny ones. Together MacLean, Rivkin, Peeples, Cummins, and Patrick New as a beleaguered priest prove the truth of an old Irish saying: “An Irishman is never at peace except when he’s fighting.” The myth lives on, but in more complicated form.