“I thought Leenane was a nice place when first I turned up here, but no. Turns out it’s the murder capital of f***ing Europe.”
So comments the mournful, young, alcoholic parish priest Father Welsh as he introduces himself in acclaimed playwright Martin McDonagh’s hard-hearted comedy The Lonesome West, running through May 9 at Ft. Worth’s Stage West. Comedy a la McDonagh doesn’t fit into the neatly demarcated compartments that delineate American stage expression. The very blackness of it, its bleak life commentary revealed through clenched teeth and a knee to the groin, seems out of touch with what gets considered ha-ha funny here. Stage West’s director Jim Covault and his four person ensemble of physically apt actors get the distinction and present McDonagh’s play with the delicate, wry sensibility the playwright surely intended. Pay close attention to the arc of its action. Therein lies the laughter.
“The murder capital of f***ing Europe”: an overstatement? Hardly so. The play revolves around the vengeful, childish, grotesquely physicalized relationship of two brothers, bound together by blood and habit and the mutual knowledge that one killed their father in a grisly, deliberate act of murder. Coleman and Valene work out their issues as only a pair of guilt-crazed, booze-soaked Irishmen can—by beating the living tar out of one another. In Ireland most likely every wince inducing on stage gut punch and head butt is met with huge guffaws of recognition; it’s how men like these two would relate, in the extreme. Stage West’s audience seems engrossed but baffled, waiting for the ‘funny bits’ to start, unsure where to laugh.
Jakie Cabe portrays pissy, older brother Valene and also conceived and directed the stunt choreography. It’s brilliantly executed. Unfolding non-stop, the destruction develops a persona of its own as it envelops everything and everyone it touches on the set. The Irish would howl with glee. Stage West’s space is fairly intimate, yet Cabe and his counterpart Trey Walpole as crude, younger brother Coleman handle the physicality with natural grace, as if it simply emerges out of their needs of the moment. What a superbly crafted and subtle ballet they perform.
McDonagh is a master at building unique characters that offer a wealth of social commentary. He clearly had some sardonic fun creating secondary characters Girleen and Father Welsh, who act as catalysts and foils to the ever-sparring brothers. Instead of providing a stereotyped innocent schoolgirl and wise, kind local priest, he writes a worldly wench, perhaps the most grounded person in the play, and pokes sharp fun at the clergy with his well-intentioned but rudderless, ineffectual reverend father, a drunk reeling down his own sorry path of descent.
Delightful in the unexpectedness of their portrayals, they also drive the arc of the play. Meg Baumann as Girleen lets the audience glimpse a survivor whose tough-mindedness and infatuation balance each other well under a blunt, foul-mouthed external guise. Baumann brings a gritty level-headedness to her role, and finds the precise, subtle moments in her final scene with Father Welsh to reveal glimpses of the strong woman she will likely become.
Justin Flowers as Father Welsh gives an exquisitely infuriating performance as the sodden, inept priest, determined to ‘do good’ in spite of himself or the hopelessly vile reality of the circumstance. His Act II monologue, breaking the 4th wall, inspired spontaneous applause at the performance I attended, well deserved. It’s interesting to watch an actor become this strong on stage by playing so weak. Kudos to both Flowers and Director Covault for recognizing the potential in this character and enlivening it for all it’s worth.
Realistic working-class set design by Jim Covault and drab, dark costumes by Covault and Peggy Kruger-O’Brien reinforce the play’s mood and support the actors in creating their topsy-turvy world. Prop and set décor mistress Lynn Lovett must have invested in a lifetime supply of saintly figurines to replace the ones smashed to bits during each performance.
Once again, Stage West has taken on an artistic challenge of major scope and done it justice in a way that would surely thrill its playwright. Some may say, “But this isn’t funny,” not understanding the sort of humor engendered by the brothers’ physical relationship or by the death and destruction all around. In McDonagh’s black comedy The Lonesome West, no resolution “punch line” comes after all the punching. What a sly, wise theatrical endeavor to raise a pint to after the actors’ final bow. Slainte. Anyone for a spot o’ Sam Shepard?
The Lonesome West runs through May 9
For tickets call (817) 784-9378 (STG-WEST) or go to www.stagewest.org
Photos by Buddy Myers