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Photograph by Dave Lepori

Dig We Must: Kevin Blackton (left) unburies the past while David Phillips (center) and Randall King keep watch.

Ghoulish Figures

Troubled characters have a few bones to pick in "A Skull in Connemara"

By Heather Zimmerman

CONSIDER FOR A MOMENT the subjects of the San Jose Stage Company's latest production--grave diggers and grave robbers, tormented souls, musty old bones aplenty and a skeleton in a key role--and you might conclude the company is opening its 20th season with Tales From the Crypt, the Play. But take heart--this grisly list actually describes Martin McDonagh's hilarious pitch-black comedy A Skull in Connemara. With its production of Skull, San Jose Stage Company continues McDonagh's "Leenane" trilogy. Last season, the company presented the first installment, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and next season will conclude the trilogy (out of order) with The Lonesome West (A Skull in Connemara was actually the last written of the three).

In any order, the three plays set in the tiny Irish village of Leenane reveal that inside the picturesque stone cottages of the little town resides a rough and resentful bunch, despite all their quaint ... er ... colorful colloquialisms. It's not hard to see how McDonagh made a name for himself in creating this earthy, gothic community of folks who nurture within themselves a mutual hatred--or at the very least, mutual intense dislike--and jealously guard some grave secrets. In fact, though there are almost more skeletons than characters in this play, it's not the macabre trappings that make Skull so compellingly creepy. Rather, it's the denizens of Leenane, who are haunted by addiction, violence, guilt and fear of failure.

However, instead of turning to each other for help in coping with their troubles, they turn on each other. Kevin Blackton gives an impressive performance as the grave digger Mick Dowd, a man dogged not only by guilt over his wife's death in a drunk-driving accident he caused, but by local gossip that he killed her on purpose. Now he must face digging up her grave, as local custom dictates, to make room in the cemetery. Blackton's complex portrayal keeps us guessing at how this delicate task affects Mick.

As Mairtin Hanlon, a thick-headed teenage troublemaker who is supposed to assist Mick in grave digging, David Phillips makes an excellent comic complement to Blackton's stoic widower. Rounding out the ensemble are Linda Ayres-Frederick, convincingly crotchety as Mary Rafferty, a pious drinker and gambler enslaved by her habits, and Randall King, in an unusually listless performance as Mairtin's brother, Thomas, a policeman who desperately fears he will never be promoted.

Director James Reese, who also helmed Beauty Queen, has the perfect touch with this difficult material, letting McDonagh's witty and often hilarious dialogue shine through while maintaining a growing sense of dread. Though McDonagh's characters always seem essentially realistic in their words, their actions sometimes suggest a cartoonishness that Reese adeptly makes believable. Nevertheless, of the two "Leenane" plays the Stage Company has presented so far, Beauty Queen has proven the more engaging, if only because the embattled mother-daughter relationship in that play decisively brought the focus to McDonagh's intricately crafted characters. Skull, by contrast, seems more interested in spinning a good yarn. And though this bizarre tale of skeletons in the closet certainly isn't without its own insights into human nature, A Skull in Connemara seems more than anything else simply a spooky Gaelic fable--but a very well-told one.


A Skull in Connemara plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm through Oct. 27 at the Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $16-$36. (408.283.7142).


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From the October 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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