In Leenane, a small town in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland, (“the murder capital of fecking Europe,” as the hopeless Father Welsh refers to it), brothers Valene and Coleman Connor violently bicker their days away. The situation has worsened after the death of their father. Murders and suicides abound in this tiny parish, and the decreasing population paralleled with the absence of morals has led Father Welsh to repeated crises of faith — so often that it’s become a joke among the townspeople, who can’t even remember whether his name is Walsh or Welsh. He drinks, has doubts about Catholicism, and can’t even defend God when someone questions Him.
Valene and Coleman, like many of Leenane’s inhabitants, are lonely and frustrated. They vent their suppressed dissatisfactions toward each other, hurling the devastating insult “virgin gayboy” at each other, usually with violent results. Valene holds the purse strings in this household, and he exercises his control over money, the house, and Coleman with gleeful torment. Coleman, however, is no innocent.
Rodney Rogers portrays the weasely Valene with amazing steadfast and confident commitment. His veneer barely contains his rage — his efforts at appearing better than Coleman never last long as he sinks into violent bouts with his brother over such trifles as potato chips, all in an effort to maintain control and be the more important brother.
John Paulsen has an ominous look in his eyes as the droopy and goofy-yet-frightening Coleman. Circumstances have made Coleman impotent in his own life, and he’s not happy about it. His outbursts of retribution are surprising, beastly, and sometimes very funny. Paulsen is terrific at showing Coleman’s complexity.
Patrick Sharbaugh is excellent as Father Welsh — his accent never falters, and his gentle voice and demeanor are well suited to the character. Welsh’s pathetic sadness permeates him throughout. Sharbaugh portrays Welsh in all his exhausted, dismayed emptiness. (Ed. Note: Sharbaugh is Arts & Screen Editor of the City Paper and recused himself from editing this review.)
Playwright Martin McDonagh’s black comedy will have you shocked at both the circumstances and the apathetic, flippant attitudes toward horrific tragedies — and laughing often at the surprisingly likeable characters in spite of all their awful qualities. McDonagh will also have you tired of his overuse of the vernacular. You may be unsure what to make of it all, but that’s part of McDonagh’s m.o. — he presents instead of teaches. In his trilogy (of which this is part, with The Beauty Queen of Leenane and A Skull in Connemara) he takes the Irish mythological iconography and satirizes it while still indulging in it. He presents people at their darkest, with their most animalistic, uncompassionate impulses, yet imbues them with charm. (He also walked away with an Academy Award two weeks ago for his short film Six Shooter.)
The lone female in the mix is the young Girleen Kelleher, the local moonshine dealer. She’s smart-mouthed and, like everyone in Leenane, she has a secret. Aaron Ballard gives the sassy Girleen a sweet appeal and tenderness. She has the sole words of wisdom in the play, as she’s consoling Father Welsh after a local man’s suicide: “Even if you’re sad or lonely, you’re still better off than those in the lake or the ground.”
There are similarities here to Sam Shepard’s True West, which PURE produced last season, with its themes of tumultuous family, violence, and darkness existing on the outskirts of humanity. Lonesome West alludes to the barren and bleak terrain that the characters inhabit, both mentally and physically. Valene and Coleman are devoid of compassion, shrugging off the murders and suicides of fellow townspeople and their own family. They don’t hesitate to threaten each other with knives and shotguns, and they have no basic human regard for anything.
When Father Welsh makes a desperate sacrifice in an effort to reconcile them and save their souls, they make an attempt to get along — confessing their sins against each other like good Catholic boys. The process of their cleansing, of their openness with one another, predictably doesn’t result in a happy, repaired relationship.
Director Sharon Graci serves this play well, keeping the action suspenseful and energetic with a quick pace and an ear for black comedy, which plays to the fullest here. Rogers’ and Paulsen’s physicality is top-notch — it’s absolutely engaging to watch Rogers’ tightly-wound temper juxtaposed with Paulsen’s frightening quiet detachment. The heartlessness of these brothers is both chilling and hilarious. Graci’s nimble blocking keeps the suspense active and engaging. The only sluggish points come early in the play and when Welsh reads a letter he’s written at a pub, but the slowed-down pace works perfectly in the scene between Girleen and Welsh.
Marvelous ensemble acting, skillful directing, and McDonagh’s darkly funny script add up to an incredibly satisfying night of theatre at PURE.