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By John Quinn
We Irish, descended from kings, are known for our poets, playwrights and our unshakable humility. We’re also known for throwing a helluva party. Thus it is fitting that The Abreact celebrates its 12th season by presenting the works of three modern Irish playwrights. First on tap (Guinness, please) is “A Skull in Connemara” by Martin McDonagh – who also penned “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” produced last year at the Hilberry Theatre.
The scene is the town of Leenane in County Galway. Time matters in only one respect – until very recently, cremation was not an option for Catholics. So, in Catholic Ireland, how do you keep the cemeteries from overrunning the island? In Leenane, Church and State agree to give a body seven years to decompose before it’s exhumed to make way for a fresh burial. Doesn’t that put a new spin on “reduce, reuse, recycle?”
For a week each autumn the grisly task falls to Mick Dowd (Frank Zeiger). This year Mick’s own wife is on the schedule. Digging up the body parallels digging up history, since a nasty rumor has circled for years that the drunk-driving crash that allegedly killed Oona was merely Mick’s method of concealing her murder. If Mick’s job weren’t bad enough, the parish priest has hired a profane young half-wit, Mairtin Hanlon (Kevin A. Barron), as his assistant. Mick’s troubles are just beginning. Under the watchful eye of Mairtin’s equally simple brother, Thomas (York R. Griffith), a local police Garda and wanna-be detective, Mick discovers Oona’s body is not in her grave.
I’m not one for spoilers, but Act II, Scene 1 is a pip. Mick has been reticent to reveal just what he does with the exhumed remains, even when prodded by his frequent visitor, MaryJohnny Rafferty (Connie Cowper), who happens to be Mairtin and Thomas’s granny. (Erin’s a small country. Everybody’s related.) The lights come up to reveal roaring drunk Mick and Mairtin smashing up skeletons into powder to be dumped in the lake. Far from being sacrilegious, the cathartic destruction becomes an Irishman’s affirmation that this cold clay (or here, plaster) is not the Dear Departed. It is delightfully creepy, especially as it sends even more debris into the audience.
My mother is very proud of her Irish heritage. My mother would hate “A Skull in Connemara.” It is dark comedy at its blackest: loud, vulgar and prone to lean on stereotype. In its own way, it’s as absurdist a play as Samuel Beckett could concoct. It’s very funny – morbid, but funny. Its flaw isn’t apparent until the final curtain – this fast-paced, over-the-top plot is allowed to just fizzle out: “not with a bang, but a whimper.” The conclusion is inconclusive. That being said, “A Skull in Connemara” remains a remarkable achievement in dialogue that is distinctly Irish, where innuendo and insult are interchangeable.
The production is minimalist, but contains some remarkable visuals. While Abreact shows generally play at or near ground level, here the playing area is elevated to accommodate two gravesites filled with real dirt. In Act I, Scene 2 that dirt gets shoveled, thrown, kicked – into the first rows of audience, sometimes. It’s a visceral experience.
Kudos is due to stage manager Erin Smith for pulling off the efficient scene changes. But elevating the stage throws a lighting designer for a loop, since even at the best of times, The Abreact is one of the most difficult performance spaces in town to light. The three scenes set in Mick’s home are suitably shadowy, and the characters seem suspended both in time and space. The graveyard, however, needs more light. Blue lights are producing some nice shadows and they’re strong enough to allow more illumination.
“A Skull in Connemara” is notable for a strong ensemble, both on and off stage, deftly playing a swiftly-changing, emotionally charged atmosphere. In the end, though, this is Eric W. Maher’s show. As director and production designer he has put a personal stamp on this captivating production. Now if he can only learn a jig to dance while tamping down dirt at intermission. That’s entertainment!
‘A Skull in Connemara’
The Abreact Performance Space, 1301 W. Lafayette, #113, Detroit. Friday-Saturday through Sept. 29, plus Sunday, Sept. 23. 117 minutes. Free; donations accepted. 313-454-1542. http://www.theabreact.com