There must be something in the air or the water in the town in Ireland where Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West, now playing at the Ruskin Group Theatre, takes place. The people all seem to be reprobates or depressives or both. There have been two, or is it three, murders of family members and several suicides in a very short period of time in this very small town. In fact, one of the main types of social gathering is the funeral. The priest, relatively new to the area, has begun to be affected and suffers from extreme bouts of “crisis-of-faith,” self-loathing and alcoholism. Even a local schoolgirl, Girleen (Rachel Noll), while charming and seemingly normal, makes a fair living by selling her father’s hootch door-to-door and falls for the one person in town who won’t have her.
The two main characters are brothers, Coleman and Valene, who are hateful to each other, but as much as we might cringe at their interactions with each other and attitudes toward their fellow townspeople, we can’t help finding them both as lovable as gangly puppies. Of course, they are puppies that might tear large, meaty chunks out of various parts of your body at the smallest provocation. I am almost ashamed to say how funny I found it all.
Mr. McDonagh, who is probably best known as the writer of the equally dark and funny movie In Burges, creates these two very dim human beings with wit and surprising intelligence. The play opens shortly after the funeral of one of the latest murder victims (or was it one of the latest suicides? I can’t remember) and Coleman, played with wicked intensity by Jason Paulfield, comes in with Father Welsh, who, much to his extreme annoyance, everyone calls “Father Walsh”. (It was only after seeing the play that I noticed that the actor playing the good priest was named Conor Walshe. A running joke spills over across the 4th wall.)
Over a cup or several of purloined whiskey, Coleman complains about the lack of refreshments at the funeral and about his brother’s stinginess, the priest goes into fits of self-doubt and we learn that Coleman’s brother Valene (a very funny Tom O’Leary) inherited all of their father’s money when the father died recently from Coleman’s accidental gunshot to his head. Valene has marked everything in the house that he owns (which means pretty much everything in the house, he is, after all, the only one with money) with a large “V”.
When Valene gets home, the two brothers instantly start in with each other. Their sparring is often just verbal, but occasionally becomes quite physical. The priest tries desperately to get them to calm down and love each other like brothers should, but it is a tough goal. As reprehensible as these two men are, we absolutely see why Father Welsh (Walsh? Walshe?) seems to care so much about them and why he invests so much of his waning energy toward their salvation.
As I mentioned, Mr. McDonagh’s script is wonderful. He uses discussions of what faith is, what will get you into heaven (Valene collects small figurines of saints) or hell (suicide is the one unforgivable sin, far worse than murder because you can seek forgiveness after murder but not after suicide), the nature of family, loyalty, duty and love, to present a darkly cynical view of humanity, or at least the humanity in this small Irish town, in a delightfully entertaining way. There is a scene in the second act that involves an evening of confession and forgiveness that condenses the sensibilities of the entire play. Mr. O’Leary and Mr. Paulfield handle that scene with depth, understanding and achingly good comic timing.
The acting in this production, as is usually the case at the Ruskin, is exceptional throughout (although Mr. Walshe occasionally loses his brogue) and the direction, by Mike Reilly, is tight and focused.
There were some odd technical glitches the night I saw the play; missed or repeated sound and light cues, a mist effect that was practically invisible during the scenes it was meant to appear in, but that lingered well into the next scene where it was out of place and strangely distracting, and a spring-loaded stage prop that kept springing during blackouts when it wasn’t supposed to, but the dark humor of the script and the force of the two main performances made those glitches almost moot. Almost. As good as I find the overall artistic quality of The Ruskin Group productions, it is unfortunate how often their plays have these odd lighting and sound miscues.