Second Thought aims for the funny bone with ‘A Skull in Connemara’
Life is slow on the west coast of Ireland, with little industry or culture to speak of in the cold, incestuous burg of Connemara, where everyone is seemingly related to everyone else: The gravedigger’s connected to the policeman, the policeman is connected to the bingo player, the bingo player is connected to the… you get the idea. Friendships derive more from apathy and proximity than from genuine affection. What else could explain why a woman, who has long suspected her neighbor of murdering his wife, would nevertheless come by his cottage every night for a cup of moonshine?
In "A Skull in Connemara" (the first new local production of 2009, presented by Second Thought Theatre), Mick Dowd (John S. Davies) scrapes out a living of odd jobs, including a fairly gruesome one: digging up the remains of the dead to make room for new bodies in the town cemetery. This year, he must disinter the bones of his late wife, who died seven years earlier — apparently in a car accident, but gossip persists that Mick killed her. Mairtin (Drew Wall), the thick-headed brother of the town policeman (Ian Sinclair) and grandson of Mick’s neighbor Maryjohnny (Caroline Wickwire), is assigned by the parish priest to assist Mick.
Playwright Martin McDonagh does something in his plays that few other playwrights would even consider: He puts in front of the audience the ghastly, perverse acts normally reserved for off-stage. In Edward Albee’s "The Goat," a spurned wife walks onstage carrying the bloodied corpse of her husband’s cloven-hoofed lover, but the killing itself occurs only in our minds.
In "Skull," Mick and Mairtin bash the bones of the recently departed with drunken glee, shards of pulpified bone fragments hurtling into the audience. The carnage goes on and on, the very length of the madness generating the sick humor.
The flailing desecration of human remains, discussions about the relative merits of drowning to death on vomit versus urine (and whether it’s your own urine) — this is the stuff of comedy to McDonagh, who specializes in portraying how the low-hum cabin fever that develops from isolation, familiarity and boredom creates an absurdist realignment of social customs. Characters are accepted for quirks that anywhere else would make them misfits if not outright sociopaths.
Most of the responsibility for going psycho lies on the shoulders of Drew Wall. As Mairtin, a tweaker with a hair-trigger response to any and all insults, Wall has a face like Play-Doh: blush-red and endlessly malleable, veins popping from his neck like a relief map of a mountain range, he jolts tremendous energy into the play. Along with Andy Baldwin and Matt Lyle, he may be Dallas’ bravest physical clown. So good is Wall that you can overlook how he (and Davies) waver in their Irish brogues, especially after the first scene.
Much of the enjoyment of McDonagh’s dialogue lay in the particulars of inane conversations: whether lesbians are good at tennis, or what happens to the penises of the skeletons, or the use of fluorescent markers at bingo, or the actual name of the local priest. But Clare Floyd Devries’ inventive set, which fluidly transitions from dreary cottage to fully functioning graveyard, is a minor miracle in the small space of the Addison Theatre Centre’s black box.
Despite the violence, the ghoulish subject matter and a fair amount of fresh blood, "A Skull in Connemara" isn’t as dark — or as funny — as some of McDonagh’s other plays ("The Pillowman," "The Lieutenant of Inishmore"). But it does conjure up more doubt about Mick’s guilt than John Patrick Shanley does in "Doubt." Laughter aside, it makes you wonder.
Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Road. Through Jan. 17. Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridaysâ€“Saturdays at 8 p.m., Jan. 11 matinee at 2 p.m. $20. 972-450-6232.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 9, 2009.