Preview: ‘A Skull in Connemara’ treats dark topics with lyrical language

A Skull in Connemara photo by Gwen Titley, Tribune-Review

James Keegan and Alec Silberblatt act out a scene from Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater’s play, A Skull in Connemara. Photo by Gwen Titley.

By Alice T. Carter

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

After earlier season visits to Poland, England, Russia and Belgium, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre transports its audiences to the west country of Ireland for “A Skull in Connemara.”

Director Martin Giles believes Martin McDonagh’s dark and disarmingly funny drama, which begins performances Sept. 12 at the Charity Randall Theatre in Oakland, will create an interesting contrast to Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan” that the company performed earlier this season.

Both McDonagh and Wilde are playwrights with roots in Ireland.

But while the Edwardian-era Wilde wrote social satires populated by British aristocrats and society matrons in London townhouses, McDonagh, a contemporary playwright, prefers to focus on working-class people who live in small, isolated rural communities far from big cities.

The poteen-drinking residents of Connemara may have little in common with Lord and Lady Windermere and their social set. But what unites them and their two very different playwrights is the beauty of their language, Giles says.

Just as Wilde had a reputation for witty turn of phrase, McDonagh manages to blend tone and style with humor. “This is the funniest one he wrote,” Giles says.

“He has control of the language. The tone and style of the play is so total and polished,” Giles says.

“The language of Wilde’s and McDonagh’s characters is different, but McDonagh’s characters sing in the same way that Wilde’s characters do,” he says. “It’s probably a drinking song, and a nasty one at that. But they do sing.

“It’s so Irish in the way they speak to each other,” Giles says. “It’s interesting how the small-town people are mean … and have this unique beautiful expressive way of speaking.”

In “A Skull in Connemara,” McDonagh focuses on Mick Dowd, a 50-ish widower who is hired each autumn to dig up graves in a section of the cemetery to make room for new burials.

This year’s disinterments include Mick’s wife, who died under questionable circumstances. Events take an eerie, mysterious and violent turn when the grave contains no body.

“Sometimes McDonagh’s characters remind me of (the characters of) Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard. They are sensitive, and in some native way, very intelligent and even romantic. At the same time they are mean and petty,” Giles says. “The characters are common and can be so mean, petty and cruel and yet their wit transcends the whole thing and the tragic comedy is that they are not aware of their own gifts.”

Their voices say something about the human condition, Giles says.

“It struck me that McDonagh seemed to have contempt for these people. But he really wants to show us how petty we are and how foolish we are. It’s the same thing any great writer does.”

Irish background

Born March 26, 1970, in London’s Camberwell neighborhood, Martin McDonagh is considered an Anglo-Irish playwright even though he has never officially lived in Ireland.

He did spend his summers there visiting his mother’s relatives in Sligo and his father’s in Connemara.

Those visits apparently gave him enough background and insights into how Irish people in small towns lived and spoke to create some award-winning plays.

The year he turned 27, he was the first playwright since William Shakespeare to have four plays running simultaneously in London’s West End.

In addition to the theater recognitions below, McDonagh received a 2009 Oscar nomination for best writing, original screenplay, for the film “In Bruges,” which he also directed.

McDonagh’s theater recognitions include:

1997 “A Skull in Connemara,” nominated for the Olivier Award for best new comedy

1998 “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” earned a Tony nomination for best play

1999 “The Lonesome West” nominated for a Tony for best play

2003 “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” won the Olivier Award for best new comedy

2004 “The Pillowman,” won the Olivier Award for best new play

2005 “The Pillowman,” nominated for 2005 Tony for best play

2006 “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” received an Obie Award for best play

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