Despite my love for the written word, I am very much a visual person. I love novels and texts honestly, but I tend to find more enjoyment in seeing how they come to life whether that is in the realm of film or on stage. Last Saturday I had the immense pleasure of seeing Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan performed by UMF’s wonderful theater community. It was both delightful and heartbreaking, a true homage to the play itself. What stole my attention, however, was the beautiful set design.
As a brief sum up of The Cripple of Inishmaan, it is a play that focuses on a small Irish community. The people of Inishmaan have known each other their whole lives. You have the title character, Cripple Billy, a lad who upon finding out from the town gossiper about a film being produced in Ireland goes off in search of becoming a star. Although many of the characters are exasperated with Billy or have spent their lives making fun of him, he is what ties these characters together apart from their shared location. Throughout the course of the play deception takes place and secrets are revealed.
In the play text, McDonagh leaves much too directorial interpretation. He gives visual direction at the start of the scene, but that is mostly it. The play opens with the scene set as: “A small country shop on the island of Inishmaan circa 1934. Door in the right wall. Counter along back, behind which hang shelves of canned goods, mostly peas.” The directions go on to state that there is a door that leads offstage, but otherwise, no directions are given. In UMF’s production, these same ideas are in place, but it is the small details that entirely made the setting believable. The canned goods on the shelves were faded, as if they had to travel a great way to get there, as life would be in 1934. The black stove was old-fashioned and looked as if it had been in that home for years. Overall, the color pattern was muted, tones of tan and brown, creating the mood that the store was not just a place of work but also a home. This helped pulled the viewer into the nature of the play, making it feel as if we were a fly on the wall rather than the clear division of audience and actor.
Later on in the third scene, McDonagh gives even less of stage setting than before. Summed up in the line, “A shore at night. Babbybobby fixing his Curragh,” everything else is left to production variation. UMF’s version includes the use of a real boat, pulled on stage by the actor playing Babbybobby, as if he had just dragged it ashore. The boat is striking with its age, appearing weathered and colors faded. This visual adds to the believability of life in Ireland in the 1934. It would be likely that the boat had been passed down or purchased used, as something new would cost too much for a poverty-stricken community. With the combined set of rocks along the stage’s edge and the building out back with the large wooden door, it is easy to feel as if you are looking at place that time has stood still in.
Overall, the production was beautiful both in emotional and visual aspects. Through the combined efforts of lighting, musical touches and attention to detail, it is easy to believe that you as a viewer has stepped back in Ireland in the 1930’s, eager to see what small town life can offer.