I find it a little strange to begin a review of a play by Martin McDonagh by praising the comic playing of the cast. McDonagh’s plays always have some comedy in them, but it is hardly enough that you would name the play a “comedy.”
The Lonesome West is a comedy.
Not that it doesn’t have cruelty and violence and suffering in it. It is one of the Leenane Trilogy, three plays by McDonagh set in the village of Leenane in the west of Ireland. The Beauty Queen of Leenane and A Skull in Connemara are the other two. They are not comedies. As the local priest says about the place, “I would have to have killed half me fuckin’ relatives” to fit in. The O’Connor brothers Coleman and Valene fight over everything and anything. Valene attacks Coleman over eating his crisps, and they fight over whose turn it is to read the magazine, and who left the top off Valene’s pen. They face each other with a shotgun in the hands of one and a butcher’s knife in the hands of the other.
But irreparable harm is not done. The O’Connors’ violence is like the violence of the Three Stooges or the violence of animated cartoons. Victims quickly recover. Because the attacks hover on the edge of serious damage, and because real violence has occurred – a depressed neighbor has drowned himself in the ocean and Coleman has killed their father with the shotgun because the father made fun of Coleman’s new haircut – it requires skill on the part of the actors and the director to constantly keep us believing that this is comic, Three Stooges and cartoon, violence.
Fortunately, director Robert Ashton at the West End Players Guild has that skill. He knows when and how to increase the tension and when to relieve it in order to maintain the comic tone.
The actors have that skill too. As Coleman, Jason Meyers’s face expresses in full every nuance of his annoyances and pleasures. As Valene, Jeff Cargus’s comic face utilizes the blankness of Buster Keaton, not quite that stone faced, but it works. The interplay between them works beautifully.
Meyers and Cargus are joined in Leenane by Ted Drury and Hannah Geisz. Drury is Father Welsh, the local priest I mentioned earlier, a young man terribly depressed by the lives around him and unable to do anything about what they do to each other. The brothers like him, and they share a drink together, which means that he is there to separate them when one has his hands around the other’s neck. Drury gives Welsh the right defeated attitude, though you can see him still struggling to somehow do some good in this world.
Geisz plays Girleen Kelleher, an attractive, outgoing young woman, probably the most settled, mature, and perhaps intelligent of the four, who delivers the moonshine the men drink, so she also is often on hand to keep the brothers from killing each other. Geisz brightens and settles the stage when she is on.
Girleen and Father Welsh have a scene together, perhaps too long, perhaps unnecessary, but still lovely. She provides a sympathetic ear for Father Welsh to confess his feelings of depression and despair, and he tells her that he can no longer endure the place and he plans to leave Leenane and move on.
Before he goes, he writes a letter to the O’Connor brothers asking them to forgive each other, admit their brotherly affection, and live together in harmony. Do it as a parting gift to him. In an outrageous and hilarious scene, they do what the priest asked. They confess the wrongs they have done to each other and ask for forgiveness, and they forgive. But as the wrongs of the past get more and more hurtful, the forgiveness gets more and more difficult, and Father Welsh’s influence is growing weaker.
Brad Slavik’s set has the rough walls of a cottage in Ireland’s poor western counties. Tracey Newcomb’s costumes and Frank Goudsmiit’s props fit in that cottage, lighted by Tony Anselmo, with Irish folk tunes in Jenn Ciavarella’s sound design. The action called for a significant contribution from fight designer and weapons supervisor Mike Monsey, with Gwynneth Rausch active as assistant director and stage manager.
The Lonesome West lacks the philosophical, psychological, and sociological resonances of Sam Shepherd’s play about battling brothers with a similar title, True West. But it succeeds as weird comedy.
Photo by John Lamb