If you know Martin McDonagh primarily through his acclaimed gothic of gore, "The Pillowman," you may suppose that "The Cripple of Inishmaan" sustained his disfigurement through violence. And although the title cripple is beaten in "Inishmaan," the dark comedy is one of the Irish playwright's gentler narratives.
Based in part on an astonishing event in the history of the Aran Islands -- McDonagh has written a play for each of them ("The Lieutenant of Inishmore" and "Banshees of Inisheer" are the other two) -- "Inishmaan" tethers its plot to the 1934 film "Man of Aran," by documentarian Robert Flaherty.
The Hollywood filmmaker was drawn to the islands by their isolation, which preserved Irish culture from invasive Brits on the mainland. That culture is reflected in the thick brogue and inbred eccentricities of characters populating McDonagh's island.
Director Stephen Hamilton guides a nimble cast through tweaks in personality that make "Inishmaan" so exasperatingly, endearingly human.
Christopher Imbrosciano as Cripple Billy, the adult orphan cared for by "aunts" who aren't related to him, embodies hopeless dreams. He lusts after Inishmaan's prettiest, meanest girl -- a volcanic Georgia Warner as egg-chucking Helen. When he hears that the director is casting on the next island, Billy secures a ride aboard Babbybobby's boat by telling a sympathy-inducing lie. Joe Pallister as Bobby projects relative sanity amid such behavior as Billy's "aunts" Kate (Janet Sarno) and Eileen (Kristen Lowman), respectively, embracing rocks or hoarding candy for emotional comfort.
Helen's brother Bartley (Evan Daves) is obsessed with telescopes, while his sister's aggression is fueled by priests who can't keep their pants up or their hands off.
But madness is best manifested by Johnnypateen (Tuck Milligan), who, when he's not trying to drown his Mammy (Margaret Dawson) in whiskey, trades gossip for provisions. But on this day, he gathers actual news. The American filmmaker has landed at Inishmore.
No one thinks Billy has a chance to be selected for a Hollywood screen test. He remains haunted, not only by his health -- Doc (Tom Gustin) is treating Billy for a wheeze -- but by the elusive truth behind his parents' suicide.
Dramatic rewards play out on Brian Leaver's adaptable period set, surrounded by the onstage audience. You could reach out and touch the players, even as they touch you emotionally.
WHAT "The Cripple of Inishmaan"
TICKETS $30, $10 students; guildhall.org, 631-324-4050