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Review: 'Skull In Connemara' Offers Black Comedy At The Gamm

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Pawtucket's Gamm Theatre is currently doing the Irish play “A Skull in Connemara.” It's a work infrequently done, certainly not as often as playwright...

Pawtucket's Gamm Theatre is currently doing the Irish play “A Skull in Connemara.” It's a work infrequently done, certainly not as often as playwright Martin McDonagh's best, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.” Bill Gale thinks he knows the reason why.

Some years ago a leading Irish critic with the wonderfully Gaelic name of Fintan O'Toole wrote a piece on playwright McDonagh for the New Yorker magazine.

O'Toole said that McDonagh once told him the theater was “the least interesting of art forms.” He added, O'Toole said, “I'd rather sit at home and watch a good TV play or series then go to the theater.”

Well, that's pretty much how I feel about “A Skull in Connemara.” 

Given a stunningly voluble production, that rings with strong, and grimy, performances under the forceful direction of Judith Swift, “Connemara” is a grim, sad look at folks who live in the rugged west of Ireland. As McDonagh sees it, Connemara is a place of crime and crying where foreboding is a way of life.

In this savage world, McDonagh's people trudge through their days, wallowing in mud caused by seemingly unending rain, not to mention a full plate of bad news and broken dreams.

We see just four folks in all of this difficulty.

There's Mick, a man of force and pride bewitched by alcohol and poor jobs, not to mention the suspect death of his wife. Played with over-sized drive and great need by the Gamm's Jim O’Brien, Mick is a man without dreams.

He's accompanied, if that's the word, by Maryjohnny, an ancient woman with a hidden quest not quite subsided with age and fear. The always on the mark Wendy Overly makes her a hag both sweet and tearful. You'd love to help her, but she won't let you.

Thomas is a local copper who knows what a failure he can be. Steve Kidd plays him as a man filled with spite and loss.

Then there's Jonathan Fisher who nicely makes Mairten a young man who just plain explains why everything around Connemara is pretty much a mistake. 

On a dark brown set with a smoky fireplace by Michael McGarty these four live lives of desperation and little hope. Sometimes their Irish brogue is hard to understand. But overall the view of “A Skull in Connemara”   gets across its dark and plaintive way of life, and death.

True enough this play is sometimes very funny in a raucous, knock 'em dead kind of way. Often called a “black” comedy it will have you laughing, as well as cringing.

But the true description of this play speaks of unending poverty and loss and destroyed hope. Even though given a strong production at the Gamm, it is still a work you'd just as soon miss.

As I left the theater last weekend, a woman behind me was asked if she liked the show. In reply, she concisely summed up “A Skull in Connemara” pretty darn well. “I liked the acting,” she said.

“A Skull in Connemara” continues at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket though March 27. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.

L to R: Jonathan Fisher as Mairtin Hanlon, Jim O'Brien as Mick Dowd
L to R: Jonathan Fisher as Mairtin Hanlon, Jim O'Brien as Mick Dowd