Review: ‘Skull in Connemara’ offers a lively, ghoulish time


Sharon Brady as Maryjohnny, Alec Silberblatt as Mairtin. Photo by Gwen Titley.

James Keegan, Alec Silberblatt, Photo by Gwen Titley

James Keegan as Mick, Alec Silberblatt as Mairtin. Photo by Gwen Titley

by Alice Carter, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The Irish have a well-earned reputation for their highly colorful way of expressing themselves.

And playwright Martin McDonagh is second to none for his ability to bring their voices to the stage.

McDonagh’s Ireland is not the quaintly cute country of step dancers and leprechauns.

His plays, including “A Skull in Connemara” that Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre is performing through Sept. 28, are set in and around the villages in Ireland’s remote west, a sort of Irish Appalachia. Everyone in “A Skull in Connemara” either knows or is related to just about everyone else in the community.

Grudges, slights and wrongdoing remain hot topics for, literally, years and are frequently revived with eloquence and an abundance of dark humor.

Substitute moonshine for poteen, and it’s the sort of complex but ordinary folks you might encounter on an episode of FX’s “Justified.”

Connemara’s residents also may draw their comparisons and metaphors from television characters and personalities. But gossip, rumor and innuendo are the preferred forms of entertainment.

“A Skull in Connemara” gets under way when Mairtin Hanlon, one of Connemara’s young nitwits, bursts into Mick Dowd’s cottage with the news that he has been hired to assist Dowd with digging up bodies in the church cemetery.

It’s an annual task, performed to make room for new bodies in the cemetery’s limited space.

What’s different about this year is that one of the bodies is Dowd’s wife, Oona, who died nearly eight years earlier in a car accident. Dowd was convicted of drunken driving that caused her death.

But town rumors hint at a darker, more sinister cause.

As Dowd and Hanlon get down to work, they unearth more than skulls and bones.

There’s an abundance of strong language and some gruesome situations that may offend some, including the disposal of the excavated human remains.

That having been said, McDonagh has a deft hand for mixing the macabre elements with an abundance of dark, ghoulish humor.

Director Martin Giles and the cast of four create a credible world for the action that takes place in its own isolated world.

As Mick Dowd, James Keegan enlivens the character with terse wit, brooding control and eloquent nuances.

Alec Silberblatt’s Mairtin Hanlon generates much of the laughter as Dowd’s opposite. He’s full of groundless self-esteem and youthful entitlement as he babbles endlessly and unthinkingly. His broad physicality and humor begin at full-speed and continue unrelentingly with little room for change of tone.

In supporting roles as the elderly neighbor Maryjohnny Rafferty and police officer Thomas Hanlon, Sharon Brady and Jason McCune help propel the drama to its unexpected conclusion.

Set designer Gianni Downs provides ambiance and utility that put the cemetery and Dowd’s home on the Charity Randall Theatre stage and places Oona’s grave at its exact center.

Ultimately, McDonagh reveals skullduggery along with the skulls.

But the most satisfying aspect of this darkly funny drama is not found among the dead but in the language and personalities of its living and lively characters.

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