Eire Apparent: A pair of Irish productions reign over soggy St. Louis

It poured ferociously last week during the opening-night performances of two current productions that are both set in Ireland, a land known for incessant rainfall. The unrelenting weather here in St. Louis only served to underscore what was happening onstage. The thunder and lightning that rocked the theaters was a metaphor for the flashes of power and brilliance that infuse these two brash, vigorous works.

Conor McPherson was only 23 when The Good Thief was first staged in Dublin in 1994. This one-man show was quite different then, for it included an intermission, slide projections and frequent intrusions for recitations from philosophical writings. Through the years the piece has been distilled to its essence, and surely for the better. Now it is simply a yarn, a 65-minute intermissionless monologue about a paid thug who is forced to flee Dublin after he mucks up a job in which he was supposed to "scare" a fellow who had been giving his underworld boss a hard time.

The title, The Good Thief, remains enigmatic; any allusions to St. Dismas are elusive. (The piece's original title, The Light of Jesus, is even more confusing.) Perhaps the original version included some built-in religious allegory, but what we get here seems to be more influenced by Mickey Spillane or Elmore Leonard than by the Bible. This Good Thief is raw and lean. The story grabs the viewer in the first sentence — "Let's begin with an incident" — and never lets go. At times the terse prose is outrageously funny. (In complaining a-bout a shoe repairman he'd been dispatched to harm, our mercenary protagonist pauses in his narrative long enough to tell us, "I hate people with skills who can do stuff." After the laugh he continues, "It's a small quibble, but I refuse to constrain my personality.") The tenor of the piece will swing from comedy to pummeling violence on the turn of a comma.

Webster Conservatory students Ashley Price, Nathan Lee Burkhart (rear) and Murphy Martin in The Cripple of Inishmaan.
Karen Burch
Webster Conservatory students Ashley Price, Nathan Lee Burkhart (rear) and Murphy Martin in The Cripple of Inishmaan.


The Good Thief
Wednesdays and Thursdays through April 10 at Dressel's Pub, 419 North Euclid Avenue. Tickets are $15 ($10 for students and seniors). Call 314-487-5305 or visit www.midnightcompany.com.

The Cripple of Inishmaan
Through April 6 at Stage III (in Webster Hall), 470 East Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves. Tickets are $10 ($5 for students and seniors). Call 314-968-7128 or visit www.webster.edu.

Joe Hanrahan, who scored a great success a few years ago in St. Nicholas, a later McPherson solo recitation that has to do with vampires, does a sensational job of taking us into his confidence and never letting our minds wander — at least not in a negative way. I did occasionally find myself trying to imagine Sterling Hayden with an Irish brogue, because the narrator-thug so reminded me of Dix Handley, the hooligan hero in John Huston's Asphalt Jungle. He also brought to mind George C. Scott's doomed gangster in the B-movie thriller The Last Run. But then Hanrahan would take a pause to bring us back into his confidence, and I would dutifully follow.

This Midnight Company production has been directed by Sarah Whitney, who might be responsible for Hanrahan's canny ability to establish the characters we need to know. A lot of names get mentioned here. But whenever a really important character is introduced — the sluttish Greta, saloon owner Joe Murray, the psychotic Vinnie Rourke — Hanrahan cleverly slows down the narrative to make sure we're listening. Smart, too, to precede the show with the Beatles singing "Lady Madonna." The lyric "see how they run" sets us up the next hour.

McPherson has gone on to write several well-received full-length plays. (Just this week The Seafarer ended a six-month Broadway run.) This is early material, not as nuanced or layered as the spooky St. Nicholas. It has the feel of a writing exercise more than the work of a dramatist with something on his mind. But to sit in a barroom at Dressel's Pub and listen to a guy with a glass in his hand tell a tale of mayhem — and tell it so well — is a special kind of pleasure. And if it happens to be pouring buckets outside the barroom window as this tale gets spun, it's no great stretch to imagine all that rain as kind of theatrical benediction.

Early on in The Good Thief, our unlikely hero gets captured by some IRA types who plan to smash his legs with a sledgehammer. "I didn't want to be a cripple for the rest of my life," he tells us. Which is to say that he didn't want to be like Billy, the sadly endearing teenage protagonist of The Cripple of Inishmaan, which is currently receiving a dandy production at Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts. Cripple is an early play by Martin McDonagh, first staged when he was only 26. McDonagh went on to build a career writing dark works like The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (which the Rep will stage next season). The offbeat movie In Bruges, which he wrote and directed, was released last month. Cripple is probably the playwright at his most benevolent. Yet even here a streak of malice pervades the proceedings.

The story is set in 1934 on Inishmaan, one of the remote Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. Not a lot happens on Inishmaan; it's big news when a goose bites a cat on the tail. So imagine the furor when word arrives that Robert Flaherty, an American filmmaker, is coming to a neighboring island to make a movie (Man of Aran). No one wants to be cast in this movie more than Cripple Billy (Nathan Lee Burkhart), whose life has been reduced to the tedium of constant taunts. Billy's legs and hands are at odd angles with his body. It's almost as if the winds that constantly sweep Inishmaan have twisted him askew.

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