By Beki Pineda
A SKULL IN CONNEMARA. Written by Martin McDonagh; directed Billie McBride. Produced by Miners Alley Playhouse (1224 Washington St., Golden) through April 30. Tickets available at 303-935-3044 or www.minersalley.com.
Connemara is a region in County Galway on Ireland’s west coast with indeterminate boundaries; it’s not an actual city. It’s like saying the “Front Range” or “central Illinois”. McDonagh’s first three plays are set in Leenane, a small village within Connemara. THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, this play, and LONESOME WEST are all populated by the quirky, complicated characters he knew from his trips “home” with his Irish parents.
You won’t find many more quirky than these four. Mick Dowd (Logan Ernstthal) is hired by the church each year to dig up a section of the cemetery and “dispose respectfully” of the remains. This particular year, he is tasked with digging up the section that holds the bones of his departed wife, Oona. That task would be emotional enough, but factor in the suspicion held in the county that he had something to do with her death and you’ve got a real problem. Factor in as well the fact that this year the church has hired an assistant for him in the form of Mairtin Hanlon (John Hauser), a clueless young “eejit” with no filters on his mouth and the attention span of a puppy. Especially when he’s been in the drink a bit. The local copper, Thomas Hanlon (John Jankow), is determined to use the occasion of the exhumation to solve, once and for all, the mystery surrounding Oona’s death. The fourth character is MaryJohnny Rafferty (Carla Kaiser Kotrc), grandmother to the two boys. She has her own set of suspicions but owes a wee bit of loyalty to Mick because of the never-ending supply of poteen he allows her to drink each afternoon. Nothing goes as it is supposed to; more questions arise than answers are found; in anger, another death almost occurs. In the meantime, the audience is having a raucous time watching these four respond to the discoveries in each scene.
You’ll not find a stronger cast to bring this strange and delightful script to life. Logan Ernstthal is a giant of a man who moves with a weariness befitting his age and place in life. He is wary but determined to get through the task at hand, and proceeds to physically dig up two graves on stage during the last half of Act One. His dark brow furrows when he’s trying to figure something out, and his eyes blaze with fire when he finally does. Carla Kaiser Kotrc brings the same solid weariness to her role of a gossiping old biddy who keeps an eye on this situation for what she can learn to share with others.
John Jankow becomes unrecognizable in his role of the local constable who has waited a long time to solve the crime that is going to get him promoted . . . or at least, earn him some respect in the community. He is so determined that he’s willing to go a little outside the law to achieve his goal. With his prissy mustache and his pristine uniform, he cuts a ridiculous figure as he pokes his nose into everything. As much as I enjoyed the quiet dignity of John Houser’s last role at Miners as Eugene in BILOXI BLUES, I enjoyed even more the youthful, manic energy he brings to his role of Mairtin. He bounces off the walls like a tennis ball and says whatever he is thinking. It’s hard to fathom how one could be so innocent and so complicit at the same time, but that’s what he does.
As I have mentioned regularly, the technical team at Miners raises the bar on every environment they create for each new production. This setting included both the run-down living room of Mick’s home and the graveyard where all the digging takes place. Actual dirt is being removed from an actual grave every night. The team of Jonathan and Elizabeth Scott McKean pull together to make each setting authentic and appropriate, well lit, and sounding good. They even found a version of the Hill Street Blues theme song for Thomas, the would-be policeman. They were assisted with costumes on this production by Laurie Scalf Scoggins, who found appropriately grubby clothes for the Irish backcountry and a spotless (temporarily) uniform for Thomas.
Of course, all this is pulled together under the watchful and professional eye of Billie McBride, the director, who oversees every detail and nuance. This wouldn’t have been the fun and frightful evening it is without her guiding hand all along the way. Miners Alley comes through with another great theater evening.
WOW factor: 9.5