PORT TOWNSEND — These townspeople —newsman Johnnypateenmike, sisters Kate and Eileen, their nephew Billy — do not tiptoe around one another.
“They say all of the socially unacceptable things people would like to say,” noted Jennifer Nielsen, who portrays Auntie Eileen in “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” opening tonight for a three-weekend run.
The One-Time Players of Port Townsend are presenting the Martin McDonagh drama, turning the Port Townsend High School auditorium, 1500 Van Ness, into the island of Inishmaan off Ireland’s west coast.
It’s 1934. A documentary filmmaker is about to arrive on the remote piece of ground, and the residents of Inishmaan are beside themselves, wanting a piece of the action.
Billy, the title character, is an outcast. He sees the impending movie as his chance to shine. “Cripple Billy” is smarter than the neighbors think he is; this film could be his ticket to a better life, away from Inishmaan’s boredom and gossip.
Billy, his adoptive aunties and the rest take the stage at 7 p.m. each Friday and Saturday through Feb. 16, plus a 2:30 p.m. matinee Sunday, Feb. 10. Tickets are $10 at the door, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.
The proceeds from “Inishmaan” will help fund a Port Townsend High School student trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this June with Nielsen, the school’s longtime drama and English teacher, leading the way.
She’ll take the teenagers to see six plays, some Shakespeare, some contemporary, and tour the festival’s backstage. The whole thing will cost around $10,000 including lodging, meals and transportation to Ashland, Ore.
Those who’d like to contribute without attending “Inishmaan” may contact the high school office at 360-379-4520. For more about the production, phone 360-385-6207 and see onetimeplayers.org/.
“If you like dark comedy, you like drama, you like Ireland and you don’t mind the word ‘feck,’ then come and see the play,” said Tristan Riley, who portrays Billy.
While Riley is brand-new on the Port Townsend theater scene, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” features an ensemble cast of well-known local performers.
Nielsen plays Eileen alongside Michelle Hensel as Kate, Billy’s other auntie. David Wayne Johnson is Johnnypateenmike, the islander who earns his living by procuring news items, “be hook or be crook,” and delivering them for a price; Sally Talbert is Mammy O’Dougal, his 90-year-old mother; Jim Guthrie plays Dr. McSharry; Bodie LaBrie is Babbybobby Bennett, a boatman; Rose Burt and Rowan Powell are Billy’s friends Helen and Bartley McCormick.
Playwright McDonagh also penned “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the acclaimed 2017 movie starring Frances McDormand. “Inishmaan” is “a great representation of the humor and style he used in that film,” said Nielsen.
This play, she added, is funny and sad, with an important message — carried by people whose words will surprise, even shock, the audience.
Riley, for his part, finds in Billy a struggle for “something all of us crave, which is to be accepted and loved for who we really are.
“With Billy, because of his disability and how those around him see him for it, his struggle is magnified and made plain.”
For Johnson, whose Johnnypateenmike is a mix of rough, arrogant and kind-hearted, “Inishmaan” is about how people need one another to make it through this life.
“The message to me is clearly that we are all crippled in some way,” he said. “Some of us are crippled on the outside; most of us are crippled on the inside.”
Lest they suspect the story too heavy, “I tell people they have to see this play because it’s so freakin’ funny. When I first read it, I fell in love. But I have always been in love with the Irish.”
McDonagh’s fable brings us into a not-so-distant time and place, added director David Hillman. After the One-Time Players’ productions of Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” in 2013 and Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” in 2016, Hillman was attracted to “Inishmaan’s” well-salted language, humor and view of life.
“Here, love and prejudice exist side by side. They are in the air the islanders breathe,” he said.
“And here too we see our tendency to hope, to try.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.