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“Cripple” Play

Date: Feb 02, 2009


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In Martin McDonagh’s moving, crackling play The Cripple of Inishmaan (now at the Altantic Theatre Company), the title character—a sensitive young man named Billy, disabled in body but strong of will—returns to his hardscrabble Irish isle after an unlikely brush with Hollywood and reports to his mates, “They decided to hire an actor who could act like a cripple rather than a cripple who can’t act at all.”

Audiences may wonder at that line, since the actor playing Billy definitely is Aaron Monaghan, a fiercely talented Irishman making his U.S. stage debut. So unknown is Monaghan on these shores, and so completely does he embody this fascinating, complicated character, that audiences must think: Is Aaron the real thing, like Billy, or an incredible simulation?

Curtain call is our first clue, when Monaghan joins the knockout Druid Theatre cast onstage for a bow. Gone is the inward-twisted foot, the cantilevered arm, the lurching walk. Monaghan is the real thing—not a disabled actor, but an actor who plays one so well we’re absolutely convinced.

And we’re a little worried: Can putting all his weight on the side of his ankle, as Monaghan does, really be healthy?

“It does hurt,” says the Dublin-based and -trained actor. “I have to physically look after myself a lot. I think I’m potentially doing some damage. My routine is same with every show I do, but on this one I’ve extended it. I warm up for two hours and do a lot of limbering up.”

Monaghan’s preparation for the role, which he originated in its Irish production under McDonagh specialist Garry Hynes, included a mix of research and experimentation. Monaghan says he wanted to be responsible and sensitive to the conditions of the disabled—which meant, in his case, studying but not outright imitating their particular afflictions.

“I want to do it as realistically as possible,” Monaghan says, warming to a subject he says no one has asked him about. “In the play, Martin is deliberately vague: He says Billy has ‘one bad arm and one bad leg.’ He doesn’t say if it’s on the same side. So I tried to find out different conditions that would lead to that; there was nothing that fit it all spot-on. I looked at muscular dystrophy, and there are dozens of different types. So what I did was sort of pick and choose certain ailments.”

Monaghan, clearly a detail-oriented actor, noted that with certain kinds of muscular dystrophy, “One of your calf muscles can almost explode. So automatically your foot is raised; you turn your leg in, and I’m standing over my foot. That developed into the walk that I have. And your spine can get quite curved. So I tightened the muscles on my arms.”

In a kind of reverse physical therapy, Monaghan added distance and new movements to his repertoire each day until he had it down. And then he added one twist more.

“What I do, which is a great experiment for me, is that alternate sides,” Monaghan says. “Every second show I do a different side, so if one night my left leg is the bad leg, I’ll switch to the right leg on another night. I figure that whatever damage I’m doing to myself, at least I’ll give each side recovery time.”

But the most painful part of acting in The Cripple of Inishmaan, ultimately, is not the physical challenge.

“Although it is painful, the physicality is not that difficult for me now,” Monaghan avers. “But emotionally it can be quite hard to live in. You do find that part of your character takes over in your own life; like Billy, I’ve felt very vulnerable, especially here in NY. This’ll be the longest time I’ve been away from my family. I find myself being very sensitive, far more than I would do if I were playing another part.”

Living inside another person can be a great teacher, though. What Monaghan has learned is that disabled people, as Billy himself more or less puts it in the show, just want to be treated the same as everyone one.

“People patronize Billy—they see him as just crippled and assume he can’t do things,” says Monaghan. “For me, it comes from a lack of understanding and a lack of familiarity. He doesn’t see himself as crippled; he just is.”

Part of treating disabled people the same as others is to be able to laugh at their human foibles.

“One of my heroes is Tommy Tiernan,” Monaghan says, citing a Dublin comic. “He did this massive tour a few years ago and got in trouble because some of his material was about Down Syndrome. I was surprised, and I thought, Should I be laughing about it?” In Monaghan’s view, to exclude disabled people from comic consideration can be a further form of exclusion. Representatives of Down Syndrome Ireland apparently felt the same, Monaghan says: “They laughed their heads off and fully endorsed the show.”

For Monaghan, playing “cripple Billy” has taught him—and through him, it can teach audiences—an unsentimental tolerance and understanding.

“I was afraid to laugh,” Monaghan says of his first approach to the material. “But laughing is one way to treat people as normal.”

Click here for more information about The Cripple of Inishmaan.