Lantern Theater Company contributes to the Philadelphia Irish Theatre Festival with its entertaining production of Martin McDonagh’s darkly funny and slightly gruesome A Skull in Connemara. The second installment of McDonagh’s well-regarded Leenane trilogy, Skull is set in the tiny village of Leenane on Ireland’s rugged west coast. As in small towns everywhere, everyone knows everyone else’s business—and in this case, familiarity breeds contempt. The villagers operate under an unhappy social truce; they’re far from friendly, but everyone recognizes that talking to even an enemy is better than isolation. They drink moonshine and gossip and discuss such weighty social matters as whether it would be better to drown in your own vomit or urine.
Leenane’s citizens are all practicing Catholics, but the traditional commandments about stealing, lying and cheating tend to get a little lost around town. The site-specific religious dogma is physically evident in the town’s cemetery, which is too small to hold all of the town’s dead; to work around this, each fall the parish employs Mick (Stephen Novelli), who makes room for the newly deceased by digging up and relocating remains that have been interred for at least seven years. What happens to the bones is known only to Mick, though the matter generates considerable discussion around town.
This year, the excavation involves the bones of Mick’s late wife, who died in a car accident in which her husband was drunk at the wheel. Drinking and driving is common in Leenane, but gossip persists that she was killed before the accident, by a blow to the head delivered by her husband.
Skull isn’t McDonagh’s best play. It’s not as deliciously macabre as the first installment in this trilogy, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, or as explosively funny as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which Theatre Exile is presenting for the festival starting Feb. 17. But this production from co-directors Kathryn MacMillan and M. Craig Getting amplifies every laugh and shudder in McDonagh’s script, and the pacing is so swift that the two hours pass in the blink of an eye.
You can attribute this success in part to the cast, who for the most part deliver appealing performances. As ridiculously pompous local cop Thomas Hanlon, Jered McLenigan chews so much scenery it’s a wonder there’s anything left of Dirk Durossette’s atmospheric set. Grabbing his crotch and puffing out his chest, Thomas is a vision of buffoonish machismo. He lacks the intellect of the crack investigators in the American TV procedurals he admires, and for all his posturing he’s incapable of intimidation.
Even better is youngster Jake Blouch as Mairtin, Thomas’ younger brother and Mick’s exhumation assistant. Blouch plays Mairtin with natural charm as a young man with more ideas than he has the vocabulary to express. As if in the throes of REM sleep, Blouch’s eyes dart back and forth as Mairtin struggles to verbalize his racing thoughts. Although the character’s most notable achievement in school was surreptitiously cooking a live hamster in biology class, Blouch avoids playing him as a dimwit or hooligan in a performance that’s effusive, but humane. We laugh at Mairtin, who has the gullibility of a person driven to please others, but we’re also saddened that this engaging youth is almost certainly doomed to live out his life in a town that offers little in the way happiness.
As Mick, Novelli strikes just the right tone. His performance counterbalances the outlandish antics of the supporting cast, but his Mick is still cut from the same cloth as his suspicious, vindictive neighbors.
Instead of being handcuffed by the awkwardness of St. Stephen’s Theater, the set takes advantage of the split-level stage to immerse us in the village, with Mick’s home on the lower level and the graveyard on the upper Durossette’s set puts us in the middle of the action—you feel like you haven’t so much watched a play as visited Leenane.
Leenane is a place where nothing is permanently laid to rest. The parishioners take their grudges and suspicions with them to the grave only to have them dug up years later. If Skull has anything profound to say about the human condition (which is doubtful) it is not especially cheery. However if you favor dark humor and a few chills , Lantern’s well-crafted production delivers both in spades.
Extended through Feb. 13. $20-$36. St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow sts. 215.829.0395. lanterntheater.org
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2