The far flung often breeds the bizarre, and Martin McDonagh's deliciously dark A Skull in Connemara capitalizes on its setting in the wild west of Ireland to weave a contemporary tale that's at once peculiar, touching and hilarious. Centerstage's offering brings together a remarkably even cast of four top-notch, talented actors, all making their debut at the theater and bringing to life the strange story of a motley crew who keep each other company in their misery.
The striking scenery sets the tone for the piece; it's eerily stark but beautifully hewn, pairing weathered wood and colorless stone-borrowing from the barren, rough landscape of Ireland's far reaches. The play opens on Mick Dowd (Skull veteran Si Osborne), a washed-out grave exhumer, visiting the tombstone of his wife, who's been dead for seven years-which also happens to be the length of time the town's dead are allowed to lie in rest before being exhumed to make space for those who have more recently passed.
Mick receives regular visits from his elderly neighbor Maryjohnny Rafferty (Barbara Kingsley), clearly just as lonely as Mick is, who comes to mooch his poitín (Irish moonshine) while regaling him with meteorological updates and confessing to her bingo addiction. Maryjohnny's mouth-breathing village idiot of a grandson Maírtin Hanlon (Jordan Brown) also drops in unannounced, begging his own glass of poitín and announcing that the local priest has assigned him to assist Mick with the next round of exhuming.
The dialogue tends toward loud banter rather than conversation, but after the first few minutes of taking in the spot-on, thick Irish accents, it's easy to grow accustomed to the pinched vowels, the odd words and the "so's" and "feckin's" that string the characters' sentences together.
When Mick and Maírtin make it to the cemetery for the exhuming, throwing bones and skulls about as if they're children's toys, Thomas Hanlon (Richard Thieriot), a police officer and also Maírtin's older brother, shows up to do nothing other than to chat and stir up trouble-especially as it concerns Mick's wife's death, still the subject of village gossip. It's unclear whether she died due to Mick's drunk driving or to a more homicidal act on her husband's part, and while Mick swears easily and often that he didn't kill her, Thomas seems intent on proving his mettle as a cop by digging up the truth (no pun intended). I won't give any more away, because you should absolutely go see for yourself how the whole thing unravels.
McDonagh's entertaining script-touching, funny, quick-witted-carries the actors and the action forward, and the first act speeds along to an intermission that comes surprisingly fast.
Completely endearing, highly entertaining, fast paced and fierce, A Skull in Connemara is two hours of delightful distraction from our own troubles as we feel for the characters-brought beautifully to life by these four truly convincing actors-as they stumble through their sad, shallow existences. Only young Maírtin doesn't seem to mind his plight: "Life isn't fair," says Mick, and Maírtin responds, "It is fair. I like it."
A Skull in Connemara runs Tuesday-Sunday through March 4 at Centerstage, 700 N. Calvert St. Its next production, Into the Woods, opens March 7. For more information, visit www.centerstage.org.
Photos © Richard Anderson, courtesy of Centerstage.