Light (and humor) in darkness: EPAC prods at the soul

By on June 14, 2017

I lived in Maine for six years before returning to Lancaster County. Walking the streets of the small, New England town soon after my arrival in The Great State I came across the Franklin County Association for the Retarded.* I was stunned.

The year was 1997, and even at that early date in the timeline of political correctness and social acceptance, I was shocked to see the word “retarded” used in an official capacity; to me it was slang, a throwback to my years growing up in Lancaster City. As kids we tossed the word around at each other when making fun of each other.

Our schools were segregated; special education students had a handful of names attached to them — “sped” and “tard” being the most hurtful and common — as they had their own classes and rarely met the mainstream population. By 1997, I had grown to understand how cruel some words could be, and how brazen and uneducated we were when looking down on a lot of people who were simply different from the rest of us.

(LNP file photos)

The shock of demeaning descriptors flooded back to me over the weekend as I sat in the Sharadin Bigler Theatre watching EPAC’s latest offering, Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”

The dark comedy prods at the soul with a red hot poker veiled by the human experience and causes the viewer to reflect on his or her own wounds or the suffering he or she may inflict by simply living in the times they were born. The cripple is at the mercy of his society.

It is 1934 on the island of Inishmaan in the Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland. Eileen (Tricia Corcoran) and Kate (Elizabeth Pattey) are shop owners on the sparsely populated island (157 in 2011) and are busy taking inventory and talking about townsfolk as the opening scene is set. Right away the dialogue explodes with quick jokes and snappy deliveries, like “she’d kiss a blind donkey!” Enter Johnnypateenmike (John Kleimo), the island’s walking newsman who procures stories and gossip for wages of eggs and legs of lamb. His grand news of the day is about a film company from America coming to a neighboring island to film the real-life mockumentary, “Man of Aran.”

“Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place, so, if the Yanks want to come to Ireland,” says Johnnypateenmike, opening what will become a running punchline throughout the show.

(Left to right) Sean Deffley, Brian Huff, and Rachael Opdenaker rehearse a scene from “Cripple of Inishmaan,” running atthe Ephrata Performing Arts Center through June 17. Reviewer Michael Upton spoke highly of newcomer Huff’s performance: “I hope his will be a consistent face in EPAC playbills to come.”

Eileen and Kate have taken on an orphan, Billy (Brian Huff), who is the cripple, and suffers the verbal onslaught of every islander who discount him because of his handicap. Hearing the exciting news of the filming, Billy follows the brother and sister duo of Bartley (Sean Deffley) and Helen (Rachael Opdenaker) who convince seaman Babbybobby Bennett (Preston Schreffler) to take them to Aran, where they hope to impress the Americans into granting the Irish youngsters stardom.

Billy does not return. Did he fall victim to illness? Was he lost at sea and drowned as his parents may have been? Or, was he just a useless cripple as some have implied?

Going further into the story would disturb the desired effect of the tale. The account of the Inishmaan folks ends back at the shop where it began, with everything returning to some sort of status quo. The Americans have returned to Hollywood. Theatregoers are left to speculate on the future of the townsfolk. Laughter permeates the show; not so much despite the merriment, but more as a consequence, the final scene left me both despondent and hope-filled.

This is one of those shows where applause is customary because of the ability of the actors and the poignancy of the prose, but the overwhelming drain on my human rationale made me despondent as I pondered the characters’ futures. I stood as Huff took his call.

Huff, who attained his M.F.A. in acting at Regent University, is new to the area. I hope his will be a consistent face in EPAC playbills to come. It is with gentle subtleness he introduces viewers to Billy, and by the end of the show highlights the fortitude we had only glimpsed early on. He simultaneously portrays strength and weakness in a vein of reality. Huff also pulls a bit of double duty in this production as he serves as the dialect and combat coach.

Opdenaker stands out as a spirited, snarky, foul-mouthed lass. EPAC regulars Kleimo, Corcoran, Deffley, Pattey, and Schreffler present their customary level of professionalism. Joining the aforementioned cast are Kathleen Godwin as Mammy, a lovable, bed-ridden drunk at the mercy of her son Johnnypateenmike; and Brian Noffke (who doubles as assistant stage manager) as the town’s house-calling Doctor McSharry.

Easy to be overlooked, but worth every ounce of merit are the efforts of set designer Braden Hooter and costume designer Shelby-Lio Feeney. Necessity dictates simplicity in the Inishmaan of the 1930s.

I can understand why Martin McDonagh is one of Director Edward Fernandez’s favorite new playwrights as he mentioned during his opening audience address. “The Cripple of Inishmaan” holds enough comedy for every palate — harsh, sadistic, slapstick, complex, historic, traditional — while balancing the solemn drama of the entire spectrum of human emotion. This is an easy show to get swept away in, like those fishermen in “Man of Aran” in a gale that never was.

“The Cripple of Inishmaan” will be shown through June 17 at EPAC. Tickets can be purchased at ephrataperformingartscenter.com.

*The Franklin County Association for the Retarded is now called the Hope Association.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

Brian Noffke playing Dr. McSharry patches up Brian Huff staring as Billy Claven in a scene from Cripple of Inishma at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center on Monday, June 5, 2017.

From right: Elizabeth Pattey playing Kate Osborn, Tricia Corcoran as Eileen Osborn and Brian Huff staring as Billy Claven rehearse a scene from Cripple of Inishma at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center on Monday, June 5, 2017.

Tricia Corcoran playing Eileen Osborn and Sean Deffley as Bartly McCormick rehearse a scene from Cripple of Inishma at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center on Monday, June 5, 2017.

From right: Sean Deffley as Bartly McCormick, Brian Huff staring as Billy Claven, and Rachael Opdenaker as Helen McCormick rehearse a scene from Cripple of Inishma at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center on Monday, June 5, 2017.

From right: Brian Huff staring as Billy Claven, Sean Deffley as Bartly McCormick and Rachael Opdenaker as Helen McCormick rehearse a scene from Cripple of Inishma at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center on Monday, June 5, 2017.

Brian Huff staring as Billy Claven and Rachael Opdenaker as Helen McCormick rehearse a scene from Cripple of Inishma at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center on Monday, June 5, 2017.

From right: Elizabeth Pattey playing Kate Osborn, Tricia Corcoran as Eileen Osborn and Brian Huff staring as Billy Claven rehearse a scene from Cripple of Inishma at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center on Monday, June 5, 2017.

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