McDonagh’s ‘Lonesome West’ at the Keegan

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Chris Stezin and Bradley Foster Smith
Chris Stezin and Bradley Foster Smith

The play is called “The Lonesome West,” but it’s not about some gas-station town between Reno and Vegas. It’s much more hellish than anything like that.

The celebrated and often controversial Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s play is part of a 1990s trilogy set in the inhospitable Irish village of Leenane in County Galway. The others are “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “A Skull in Connemara.”

Like much of Irish literature, “The Lonesome West” is obsessively wordy and almost desperately cranky and poetic. It’s a long (two-and-a-half-hour) argument between two brothers, the irascible, manic Coleman and the hoarding, oily and preening Valene Connor, occupying a cottage that emotionally resembles an Irish combat zone, even if it looks to be straight out of “The Quiet Man.”

These two are the heartless heart of the play, a play that’s at turns creepy, vicious, funny and, in the oddest places, tender, thus representing a kind of worldview and style on the part of McDonagh, who’s spent most of his life in England. He’s the author of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” the popular and futuristically creepy “The Pillowman” and the controversial “A Behanding in Spokane” of more recent vintage. He also wrote the screenplay for “In Bruges,” about a troubled Irish hit man.

“The Lonesome West” is getting a scaldingly focused production at the Keegan Theatre near Dupont Circle, directed with keen respect for the language of the play, which is punctuated by grunts and noises, by Mark A. Rhea. It runs through Aug. 27.

McDonagh’s plays have a way of seeming to be artfully and theatrically constructed, with an undertow of secrets and lies that erupt like a muddy volcano during the course of things, conducted in what seems to be a homey, Irish village kind of setting.

Coleman is a little beefy, a man who occupies more space than he needs just to be noticed, loud of body and voice, unkempt and bearded. His brother Valene is thin, with a tinny, screechy voice, and insistent, a hoarder of everything except his sense of his own importance. He’s got a shelf of porcelain figurines of the Virgin Mary (below a long rifle hung on the wall), he’s purchased a stove and he is the maintainer of the house supply of poteen, a particularly lethal form of Irish whiskey.

Their father has recently been killed in what’s described by both as an accidental shooting at the hands of Coleman. They’re joined by the young priest Father Welsh, who they erringly call Father Walsh, a desperate boozer who is in danger of losing his faith. “How’s your struggling with your faith going this week,” they ask him, then suggest he’s becoming an alcoholic. “I am not an alcoholic,” he insists. “I just like to drink.”

There’s also the winsomely named Girleen Kelleher, a redheaded teenage beauty who sells poteen to the brothers and other townfolk.

The brothers soon enough get into a fight — over the poteen, which Coleman steals, over the figurines, which Coleman detests and ends up sticking into the oven, over Girleen, whom both brothers desire like the virgins they are, over old grudges and memories and over the fact that Valene has complete ownership of the house and everything in it. And when the brothers fight, and they inevitably do, it gets physical. The threat of violence is always in the air, reflecting the town, where there have been suicides and violent deaths. “I’m a sorry priest, I’m pastor of the murder capitol of Ireland,” Father Walsh says.

The powerless priest has no power over his congregation or over the brothers, who seemed headed toward another fight when they get a letter from him, pleading with them to make up, to cease and desist their destructive behavior.

And so, in the end, they engage in a game of confess and forgive, a game, with the brothers playing it, that is cruel beyond reason and leads to something loud and inevitable. Secrets and lies, indeed. The brothers appear united not in love and affection, but in their resentments of each other, their shared hatred and animosity.

McDonagh is a shock master if there ever was one, but he also holds a perverse affection for his characters. Smack in the middle of the play, leading off the second act after yet another funeral, there’s a long, tender scene between the priest and Girleen, talking mostly about the brothers, their youth and the future. Later, when she delivers the letter to the brothers, she says: “I read it all. He never mentions me once.”

“The Lonesome West” is an actor’s dream for all concerned, although for the audience there’s also a helpful glossary of terms and references which includes, oddly enough, mentions of two popular American television shows of the 1990s, but also a definition and pronunciation guide to the local vernacular. The “een” suffix comes in play frequently as a diminutive, as in”poteen” and “girleen,” but everything appears to have a windswept Gaelic quality to it, even the obscenities.

Matthew Keenan as Coleman has a lewd, aggravating, almost gleeful way about him; he’s one for shock and awe, leaving no insult unsaid, no provocation left unprovoked, no dirt left unstirred, no statue untouched. Bradley Foster Smith is more curled up and inward. Outwardly tense as Valene, he’s a nerve ending wearing clothes, and a provocateur as he doles out poteen by the half-inch to the priest and to his brother.

By contrast, Chris Stezin as the painfully bewildered and deeply sinking Father Welsh seems to inhabit his vestments as if they were torn from a wailing wall. Sarah Chapin as Girleen, blunt, sometimes cruel, but always vivacious, sounds almost like a discordant life force — discordant because it seems that in this town, where people die mysteriously and violently or walk into the ocean, even the worms might have teeth, and bare them.

Watching this, you’re at turns repelled, entertained — in the manner of being in a coliseum the size of a living room — bewildered and aggrieved and shocked. Like being on a street corner during the course of a hit and run, you can’t look away.

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