Riveting production inspires laughter and rumination in equal parts

A Skull In Connemara

By Martin McDonagh, Directed by BJ Jones

At Center Stage through March 4

Mick Dowd’s living room is planted in the middle of a cemetery in Center Stage’s new production of A Skull in Connemara. When Mick (Si Osborne) sits in his stained armchair and sips some poteen, Ireland’s home-brewed whiskey, from a mason jar, it seems that the tilted headstones are closer than the bathroom.

Of course, Mick’s living room isn’t really in the cemetery, which is actually a mile or so down the road, but by shoving the two together, director BJ Jones and set designer Todd Rosenthal reinforce the point that death is a constant presence in Mick’s life. Not only does his wife Oona lie in that cemetery after dying in a drunk-driving accident more than seven years before, but Mick is also hired every autumn by the parish priest to dig up old corpses to make room for the new in the overcrowded graveyard. And this is Ireland, after all, where life is overcrowded with dead heroes and ancestors who leave little room for new initiative.

This constant bumping into death provokes some sober reflections, of course, but it also provokes bursts of irreverent humor. What makes Martin McDonagh’s script and Jones’ direction so riveting is that we in the audience never know which is coming next. Like professional poker players, the four cast members never tip their hands, forcing us to guess what the next line of dialogue will be—a blasphemous insult or an unexpected act of grace. Mostly it’s insults—as vicious as they are funny—but when the moments of grace appear they mean that much more by blooming in such a squalid garden.

By the second scene, Mick and his knuckleheaded teenage helper Mairtin (Jordan J. Brown) are already digging up bodies. Jones fortifies the realism by having the two actors stand knee-deep in holes and use real shovels to scoop up and fling real dirt (well, mulch) onto the stage. Before long broken coffin boards and detached humerus bones come clattering across the floor. In the midst of this gruesome business, the two men test how far one can push the other with insults. Mick says he won’t be relying on Mairtin’s intelligence, not after the latter was expelled from school for microwaving a live hamster in science class. Mairtin says he wants to dig up Oona’s grave to see if there’s any evidence of the rumored foul play that can’t be explained by a car accident.

In all his plays, McDonagh likes to stretch the bounds of plausibility without breaking them, and it does seem unlikely that Mick would tolerate Mairtin’s exceedingly personal insinuations for as long as he does. But we accept his strange forbearance, because we’re in the exotic milieu of a midnight exhumation. We accept it because it seems only a slightly exaggerated depiction of a male culture where insults are used as tests of friendship and as shields against emotional disclosure. We accept it because Mick has spent a lifetime at such exchanges, while Mairtin is new at the game—and the older man is about to teach the younger one a lesson in boundaries.

As Mick, Osborne has a weathered, lined face, an unruly thatch of straw hair, and a way of flinching that suggests still-tender wounds that he’s protecting. His wary eyes glance from side to side as if gauging what’s safe to say. As Mairtin, by contrast, Brown is a tall, handsome lad with curly brown hair and seemingly no filter; any thought that pops into his smallish brain comes out of his mouth. These two very different approaches have the same result: We never know what Mick or Mairtin might say next, but we’re eager to find out.

When Thomas (Richard Thieriot), a policeman in blue uniform, shows up to oversee the opening of Oona’s grave, he at first seems much more mature, much more responsible than his younger brother Mairtin. But the more Thomas puts on pompous airs and jabbers about his unlikely plans to solve local murder cases, the better Mairtin’s oblivious, tactless honesty seems by contrast. And when the brothers’ gaunt, moralizing, hypercritical grandmother Maryjohnny (Barbara Kingsley) arrives to cadge some poteen from Mick, all the while insulting him, Mairtin starts to seem like the angel of the family.

Soon there will be violence, exposed secrets, desecration of the dead, and redemption of a sort. All along, we never know if we will be asked to respond with a gulp or a laugh. Thanks to the skill of McDonagh, Jones, and this wonderful cast, whatever we’re asked, we deliver.

A Skull in Connemara is part of McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy, along with The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West; no characters appear in more than one play, but characters discussed in one may well appear in another. Center Stage had the splendid idea of presenting free, public readings of the other two plays on January 22 and 29 at Liam Flynn’s, an Irish bar on North Avenue. I saw the first one, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which boasted four Baltimore-based performers (Bruce Nelson, Susan Rome, Rosemary Knower, and Nathan Fulton) every bit as talented as the cast at Center Stage.

At Liam Flynn’s, there were no props or costumes, just four performers behind black music stands below a dart board and Pabst Blue Ribbon sign. They overcame the noise coming from the NFL playoff game at the other end of the bar and conjured up a rural cottage in West Ireland where a 40-year-old, never-married woman battled her manipulative mother, found unexpected love from a neighbor, and then lost it to a cruel betrayal. It provided invaluable context for A Skull in Connemara, and one hopes that Center Stage will present similar companion readings for future productions.

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