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Theater Review:

"THE LONESOME WEST," Famous Door Theatre Company at A Red Orchid Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Martin McDonagh, the riotously successful U.K.-based Irish playwright, seems to dip his pen in a pint of poteen – booze distilled from potatoes – flavored with gun powder. His absurdly explosive writing style is evident in both his Aran Island play cycle and his Connemara Trilogy, which includes "The Lonesome West" – receiving its Midwest premiere by Famous Door Theatre Company at A Red Orchid Theatre. This boisterous tale of sadistic sibling rivalry is set – like McDonagh’s "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and "A Skull in Connemara" -- in the small Connemara town of Leenane in County Galway, Ireland.

Two fortysomething bachelor brothers – the brutish, short-tempered Coleman Connor and the mincing tightwad Valene Connor – engage in excessive rounds of cursing and beating on each other as a depressed young priest, Father Welsh, ineffectively importunes them to mend their volatile ways. They are often visited by a precocious pre-teen named Girleen Kelleher, who sells them her father’s homemade poteen and is secretly in love with Father Welsh.

The Connor brothers, however, serve as a microcosm of the remorseless destitution found in a poverty-riddled society, whose only reminder that it is alive is filtered through a rather greasy lens of violent eruptions. Rarely does a day pass in Leenane without a murder or suicide being committed – or even a horrible fatality on the little girls’ soccer team. Cussing comes as easy as breathing; a throat is slashed with the ease it takes to swill a Guiness across one’s flapping maw.

We soon learn that Coleman blew off his father’s head because the old man criticized his hairstyle. The ditheringly opportunistic Valene immediately blackmails Coleman into giving him his share of the inheritance. So Valene – who obsessively collects figurines of saints – exists merely to stake his claim on what is rightfully his, even going so far as to brand all of his possessions with a black magic-marker "V." His garish new orange stove is yet another acquisition on which he makes his mark. Both men harp on ownership yet put no value on human life.

The humor, of course, arises from McDonagh’s ability to balance hysterically overblown satire with subtle kernels of truth about the human condition. My main complaint, however, about McDonagh’s writing is that it sometimes veers into the showy, sensationalistic realm (for example, "Your sex appeal wouldn’t buy the phlegm off a dead frog"). He tends to rely on slapstick-inspired tricks and can be repetitious. If he were not so adept at writing such eviscerating poetry, McDonagh could be accused of aiming for mere shock value.

Nevertheless, "The Lonesome West" – no doubt inspired by Sam Shepard’s "True West" – is a great guilty theatrical pleasure, perhaps because it allows us to stare into a dark abyss of the soul and still manage to laugh into the echoing caverns of human folly.

In the end, McDonagh comments on the futility of the church or state to curb individuals’ bloodlust tendencies. And he brilliantly invalidates the over-used phrase, "I’m sorry." The tragic figure of Father Welsh (whom everyone carelessly refers to as either Welsh or Walsh) can’t convince the Connor boys to save his soul or their own despite sacrificing himself. Girleen is headed on a long slide into hopeless boredom and unfulfillment. Yet the petulant brothers will go on pummeling and torturing each other – and having a jolly old time at it because they’re morally oblivious and that’s the only viable form of communication they know.

Famous Door’s potent production, directed with a likable bleakness (if there can be such a thing) by Calvin MacLean, approaches this arsenic-doused script with bristling conviction. We move from gasping in horror to actually feeling sorry for these misguided survivors. Roderick Peeples gives Coleman an affable vulnerability despite his bullying ways; and Dan Rivkin as the uptight and much-abused Valene can be effectively despicable in his delusional self-importance.

Patrick New endows the gradually unhinging Father Welsh with a demeanor so dour it’s laughable; and Corryn Cummins’ flirtatious yet tough Girleen walks a fine line between sensuality and fury. Robert G. Smith’s quaint but bare Irish cottage scenic design, all the more stifling when experienced in A Red Orchid Theatre’s tight confines, continues the playwright’s offbeat humor by making the cupboard open up and double as a dreary cove near the sea. Jeff Pines’ lighting evokes the script’s warm and wicked textures.

When the play is over, and we find ourselves gripping our sides in paradoxical pain from the laughter, it becomes clear how deeply "The Lonesome West" can tap into the maddening incongruities of our existence. McDonagh’s characters live in a world so contorted that love is expressed through violence; and the virtuous and vulgar join hands in a brittle-humored danse macabre.

Famous Door Theatre Company’s production of "The Lonesome West" runs through May 12 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells. Tickets: $16-$32. Call 773-620-DOOR or log onto www.famousdoortheatre.org.

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