Preview, Post-Gazette: Director comes off surgery and throws himself into McDonagh’s ‘A Skull in Connemara’

A Skull in Connemara by Bob Donaldson

James Keegan portays Mick, Sharon Brady is Maryjohnny and Alec Silverblatt is Mairtin in the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre production of Martin McDonagh’s “A Skull in Connemara.” Photo by Bob Donaldson

By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Martin Giles has been sitting down on the job lately, and with very good reason. The director is recovering from recent surgery, which took place in the midst of rehearsals for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre’s “A Skull in Connemara.”

Removal of a cyst on his neck in early August revealed the presence of cancer, and his doctor said surgery to remove lymph nodes could not wait. He missed eight days of the 41/2-week prep before previews begin today. Not knowing if he could return to work, he gave way to artistic director Alan Stanford before Mr. Giles’ doctor gave him the green light.

‘A Skull in Connemara’

Where: Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre at Stephen Foster Memorial, Charity Randall Theatre, Oakland.

When: Through Sept. 28. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, plus 7 p.m. Sept. 24 and 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 28.

Tickets: $25-$48 ($20 under age 26), or 412-561-6000.

When his neck heels, he will have precautionary radiation treatments, but the doctor has assured Mr. Giles that he should be fine.

Looking thinner and frailer but no less jovial than usual, Mr. Giles says he’s asked his girlfriend to get him a fancy scarf to cover his scar, although he’s been told it will fade with time. Another concession to his surgery is that he usually walks around while directing, but these days, he’s saving his energy by remaining seated.

He’s been told to eat to keep up his strength, but his throat is still sore from the tube used to anesthetize him for surgery and his jaw is stiff, making it painful to chew.

Despite the ordeal, he chuckles often as he describes events of the past month.

“You start to think things like, I’ve had those things as long as I’ve been alive, and now they are gone! My poor lymph nodes, they’re gone!” he says while seated in a noisy corner of a Starbucks on the South Side. “The doctor says, ‘You have plenty of lymph nodes, you don’t need them.’ And did you know you have two jugular veins? I didn’t know, because they took mine out and I said, ‘Don’t I need that?’ And they said, ‘Don’t worry, you have another one.’ Now I tell people, ‘You can’t go for my jugular, because I don’t have one.’ ”

His light tone has the effect of bringing the conversation back to Martin McDonagh’s “A Skull in Connemara,” a showcase for the writer’s skills at mixing dark humor and extreme, often violent situations.

In this particular play, there’s a lot of literal bone crunching.

“Crushing skulls is, as one of the actors put it, embarrassingly enjoyable,” Mr. Giles relates.

The central character, Mick Dowd (James Keegan), is a gravedigger whose job includes disinterring and disposing of bones from the crowded local cemetery to make space for the newly dead. When Mick has to dig up the grave of his wife, Oona, gossip is unearthed about Mick’s role in her death. The undercurrents of “did he or didn’t he?” — is he the victim of vicious rumors or a calculating killer? — play against the drudgery of life in the hum-drum hamlet of Leenane.

Three McDonagh works — “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Lonesome West” are the others — are set in the same Galway town. Besides place and a penchant for violence, the plays are tied together by characters who get a passing mention. “Ray Dooley, he’s in everything,” the director says. ‘And Father Welch, Welsh, Walsh … he shows up in ‘Lonesome West,’ doesn’t he?”

“A Skull in Connemara” also serves the purpose of fulfilling the “Irish” in the company name.

“It’s beautifully constructed and beautifully written,” Mr. Giles says. “More than any play of his, although he writes great dialogue, this play feels like it’s in the tradition of Irish theater. It feels like it steals from Wilde and Shaw to O’Casey and Synge.”

Mr. Giles admits that he isn’t a big fan of what playwright McDonagh has to say as much as the way he says it and the vivid characters — roles that an actor can’t help but covet.

Mr. Keegan returns to PICT after roles in “Julius Caesar” and “Stuff Happens.” He teaches at the University of Delaware and acts regionally, often in Shakespearean roles.

“Andrew [Paul, former artistic director] has always tried to get him back, but he’s been busy. He was able to book him for this show, and he had a little waffling when Andrew wasn’t going to do it; Alan and I kind of talked him into it. He’s a big, broad-chested guy and a total intellectual; a great guy and an interesting fellow,” the director says.

Local actors in the cast are Sharon Brady and Jason McCune, along with Alec Silberblatt, who is from Pittsburgh but now lives in New York. He was seen here as Jason in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s “Rabbit Hole,” and as a student at the Cincinnati Conservatory, he brought his one-man show, “One Joyous Act,” to his alma mater, Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside.

“He has this totally amazing physicality. This nimbleness … he’s just like a live wire, really amazing,” says Mr. Giles, who adds that he attended college with Mr. Silberblatt’s father.

“They are all character actors, and it’s a real character actors’ show, which is right up my alley,” the director says.

The actors visited him in the hospital during that strange time when he was playing tag-team directing with Mr. Stanford.

Mr. Giles says his return came as a relief to Mr. Stanford, who has had a lot on his plate since taking over the reins at PICT. After acting in that capacity all season, Mr. Stanford recently was named to succeed Mr. Paul, co-founder and director of the theater, who was fired in February.

“Alan and I work a little differently, but we think the same — about text, especially, so it’s been amazingly smooth, and the actors have been really good about it.”

Mr. Giles won’t have much time to relax after the PICT show is up and running. He has two weeks before rehearsals begin for his next directing gig, Jez Butterworth’s “Parlour Song.”

He’s hopeful he will be recovered enough to take the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre stage Dec. 4 to reprise his role as Dr. John Watson in “Sherlock Holmes and the Crucifer of Blood,” with David Whalen as the popular detective. The actors, each a Performer of the Year for the Post-Gazette, teamed during the 2012 holiday season in PICT’s “Mask of Moriarty,” the highest-grossing production in the company’s history.

For now, he’s concentrating on the job at hand, and it’s just the right medicine.

“You don’t have to sit around worrying about your mortality all day,” he says. “You actually get to go to work, and I think it’s therapeutic.”

Then Mr. Giles chuckles and adds, “I find the play incredibly funny.

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