‘Cripple of Inishmaan’ funny but dark

The Phoenix production of Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” is a web of contrasts.

It belongs very much to its time and place, the 1930s on a small island off the coast of Ireland. However, it has echoes of today’s news in our sensitivity to bullying, concerns over mental health and the revived fear of deadly disease.

It’s a story of big Hollywood dreams, as well as quirky small-town life. It’s a new and unique play, yet feels familiar, as the Phoenix has staged McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “The Pillowman,” as well as Marie Jones’ “Stones in his Pockets,” which has the similar plot elements of a movie being filmed in a remote part of the British Isles and its effect on the locals.

Fortunately, this complex tale of simple lives is very well cast. Nathan Robbins is excellent as the titular cripple, Billy, who has to maintain his likable character and Irish accent while keeping his arm and body properly twisted (much like stage versions of “Elephant Man” but with a clear voice).

Rob Johansen is totally in his element as Johnnypateenmike, who leverages his ability to play a plain-looking everyman with glib charisma as the island’s busybody always on the lookout for “news,” the odder and more interesting the better.

Ryan O’Shea is Helen, whose charming good looks thinly mask a cruel temperament, and Tyler Ostrander is her brother, Bartley, a not-too-bright boy driven by his sweet tooth (The candy brands may be fictional, but you’ll be wanting Yalla-Mallows and Mintios at intermission).

Michael Hosp is burly Babbybobby, who has a boat that can take young dreamers to the film set on a neighboring island. Deborah Sargent and Gayle Steigerwald play the charming but fussy shopkeeper “aunts” who care for — and worry over — orphan Billy.

The cast is completed by Gigi Jennewein as Johnnypateen’s drun-ken Mammy and Paul Hansen as Dr. McSharry, who is often frustrated at the antics of the people he cares for.

When Johnnypateen comes around with truly interesting news, that a film about life on the Aran Islands is being shot, Billy finally sees his chance to escape the confines of Inishmaan and only being known as the local cripple. When word gets around that Billy has tuberculosis (usually deadly at the time), that only gives those who know him more to worry about as the lad fails to come back from an outing to the movie set.

Despite all the dark elements of this drama, it is a comedy, and a very funny one, though the dark edges are never far off. The dialogue does have a bit of native slang, but not too hard to understand in context, and a one-page glossary is provided in the program.

John Belden is former arts editor of the Daily Reporter. He lives in Irvington. You can reach him at indybeldar@gmail.com.