Digging up 'A Skull' unearths emotions at Center Stage

There's a lot of talk in Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's "A Skull in Connemara," and some of what its characters say may even be true.

Sadness and violence also percolate just beneath the surface of the jocular banter, prompting uneasy laughter from the audience at Center Stage.

That volatile mix of emotions is something of a trademark for McDonagh, whose credits include "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," "The Lonesome West" and "The Cripple of Inishmaan." He knows how to pull you into an amusing story and then jolt you with its less amusing undercurrents.

The engaging production directed by B.J. Jones at Center Stage immediately makes you glad you decided to listen to the garrulous residents of an isolated town in Galway.

This immediate attraction visually starts with Todd Rosenthal's rustic set design. The furnishings in a humble cottage include a hutch that's so improbably high and overstuffed with religious statues and knickknacks that it symbolically reinforces the torrent of words that's about to be released.

The well-worn wooden floors and walls in this cottage speak to the near-poverty of these late-20th-century Irish villagers still living under conditions much like their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.

Their close connection to the dead is visually stressed by having an old graveyard off to one side of the stage; for that matter, the principal character's profession as a gravedigger justifies a darkly humorous set change in which the cottage floor is transformed into a series of open graves from which the gravedigger will toss real dirt onto the stage.

Like any tangled tale, "A Skull in Connemara" takes its time getting into the real story. The owner of this near-derelict house, Mick Dowd (Si Osborne), is a middle-aged gravedigger presumably still mourning the fact that seven years ago he buried his own wife in that adjacent cemetery.

When Mick receives a daily visit from an old woman from the neighborhood, Maryjohnny Rafferty (Barbara Kingsley), they discuss the cold and rainy weather in such a way that this weather report seems to be a statement of their philosophy of life. Their unsentimental and often vulgar verbal jousting has a lived-in feeling, as if they've enjoyed complaining for a long time.

The next one to come through the door is Maryjohnny's grandson, Mairtin Hanlon (Jordan J. Brown). This young man may not be bright, but he's good-natured. His cheery personality will be put to the test, however, because he has been hired as an assistant to Mick at the graveyard.

Reflecting a tradition that has medieval origins, they have been assigned to dig up old bones in the overcrowded graveyard in order to make room for new burials.

In this particular graveyard, they are moving bodies that were buried as recently as seven years before. Even though this is an historically documented practice in Europe, it may strike you as so disrespectful that you'll break into horrified laughter.

The playwright gleefully gets in his, er, digs here. There are many jokes involving the men digging up graves and then holding up the skulls of people they once knew.

It's like a grotesquely comic variation on the scene in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in which that existential protagonist contemplates the skull of somebody he knew.

If nervous laughter seems like a suitable response for this bad taste scenario, not every character in "A Skull in Connemara" is in a joking mood.

Although the rough-edged Mick and the simple-minded Mairtin treat their task as a ghoulish game, Mairtin's brother, Thomas Hanlon (Richard Thieriot), is serious about his job as the local policeman. Incidentally, Thomas gets inspiration for his detective work from the American TV crime shows that have reached the airwaves in this distant rural corner of Ireland.

There are lingering questions as to the circumstances that resulted in the death of Mick's wife. Was it a traffic accident or was Mick responsible for her demise?

These long-simmering questions come to the surface along with the wife's unearthed body, because Mick's job requires him to dig up her.

Although her skull understandably is mute, everybody else freely offers opinions about the truth of the matter. For what it's worth, my own theory is that they talked her to death.

"A Skull in Connemara" runs through March 4 at Center Stage, at 700 N. Calvert Street in Baltimore. Tickets are $10- $45. Call 410-332-0033 or go to http://www.centerstage.org.

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