Hysterical laughter — of both the pathological and the funny sort — has its place as stopgap comfort when things seemingly can't get worse. Written in 2001 and set in 1993, Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore treats the terrorist Troubles in Ireland with gravely black humor. Whether you regard your resulting laughter as sick or curative is up to you, but laugh you will.
Directed by Josh Short, the Wilbury Group is staging the second play of McDonagh's Aran Islands Trilogy through January 16 at Conley's Wharf in Providence. The production is mind-blowing — literally as well as figuratively. Thanks to the explosive special effects of Steve Tolin, and Short apparently getting a deal on fake blood by the gallon, the play makes the usual stage violence look like Punch and Judy. I think I saw Quentin Tarantino in the audience taking notes.
It hits the ground running scared, with a misunderstanding that could prove fatal. Davey (Dennis Kozee) takes a run-over cat off the road and into the house it was killed in front of. Donny (Brien Lang) lives there, and his son was devoted to the late Wee Thomas. Davey always liked him, considering most of the other cats in the neighborhood "too full of themselves." But Donny calmly keeps insisting that Davey must have run over him with his bike, even though it clearly would have taken a car tire to mash its skull. (We are not spared the sight of the dripping little corpse.) Kozee does especially well setting the opening absurd tone, balancing fright and whistling-in-the-dark hopefulness, a stand-in for all innocent but beset.
Things get much worse for Davey. The roadkill's owner, Padraic (Joe Short), is a bomb-planting, casually murderous terrorist so violent that he was thrown out of the IRA. He's crazy but logical, having the sense to bomb a chips shop rather than an army barracks because it's "not as well guarded." Padraic is ever on the lookout for behavior to violently object to, and we see him in action before he finds out about Wee Thomas. He has some poor guy, James (Joan Peralta), tied up, nearly naked, and bloody head to feet. Padraic has pulled out two toenails for the offense of selling marijuana to schoolchildren, not just to the Protestant ones. (Padraic thinks himself merciful for removing the toenails from the same foot, allowing less limping.)
You get the idea. They don't call him "Mad Padraic" for nothing. He gets a call about Wee Thomas being a little ill (a delaying measure to keep him away) while he is torturing James, who is sympathetic, being a cat owner himself. Padraic is surprised ("I didn't know drug pushers had cats") and doesn't kill James before he takes the next boat home.
So the main conceit is that while such terrorists as Padraic and others here couldn't care less about human suffering, they are kind and loving to their cats. In the hands of playwright McDonagh and director Short, this isn't a simple, one-note irony but always important to them and sincerely presented rather than just played for laughs.