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‘Skull in Connemara’ bleak, witty comedy

By Kevin T. Baldwin

Telegram & Gazette Reviewer

NORTHBRIDGE - In the well-crafted “plot” of “A Skull in Connemara,” a local gravedigger’s job just might prove to be the death of him. The hauntingly humorous piece begins the 12th season for Pilgrim Soul Productions, just in time for the month celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

Set in Ireland, there is much of what could be referred to as “graveyard humor” in the second morbidly comedic installment of the Martin McDonagh Irish “Leenane” trilogy. Most of the first act is literally set within a rural Galway graveyard site.

Originally premiering in Ireland in 1997, the two-act play falls between McDonagh’s other, and more popular, plays “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Lonesome West,” which both were nominated for Tony Awards for Best Play. 'Connemara' was the only one not nominated, but that may have been an oversight.

Gravedigger Mick Dowd (Paul Collins) digs up the long-departed in the local crowded cemetery in order to make more room for the more recently departed.

Now, Dowd must also disinter the remains of his own long-departed wife, which is where both a mystery and a lot of the black humor elements begin.

Finely tuned dialogue pacing, complete with thick and varied Irish accents, under the direction of Aimee Kewley, punctuate the incessant guttural rambling conversations between Dowd, his young helper, Mairtin Hanlong (Brian Hunter), and Mairtin’s older brother, Thomas (Tony Gahan), a local constable. The topics run the gamut from mundane to ridiculous to occasionally poignant.

There is little to designate the time period save for some pop cultural television references ('70s and '80s series such as “McMillan and Wife,” “Quincy,” “Hill Street Blues” and “Petrocelli”).

Rounding out the cast is Maryjohnny Rafferty (Pat Delano), grandmother to the brothers and a nosy neighbor. Delano is humorous as Rafferty, who vents a multitude of maladies to the often irritated Dowd who is exasperated by her constant intrusion into his residence, often seeking less conversation and more drink.

At the gravesite of his late wife, Dowd literally 'unearths' that someone, apparently, has “beaten him to the punch” as the remains of his wife have disappeared. This does not help Dowd with the rural rumors that he killed her in a drunken stupor.

The performances keep the story consistently interesting among the four actors, but it is Collins who truly shines as the brooding Dowd. His understated portrayal of the dour but thoughtful nature of the character is just enough to keep the attention focused but not too much for it to become a distraction or worse, uninteresting.

A very austere looking yet extremely effective set design by Matthew J. Carr (with construction by Michael Paquin) consisted of a very detailed graveyard on stage right, replete with head stones, dug up coffin holes and a lot of dirt. A lot. The basic color scheme of somber mixed grays and browns perfectly accentuate the atmosphere.

Probably one of the most ironic scenes comes when Dowd and Mairtin seem to emotionally “bond” as they both pulverize multiple skeletal parts with mallets over a work bench. As they grind bones to powder small fragments fly everywhere all over the stage, as do various small fragments of the character’s respective back stories and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the remains of Dowd’s late wife.

Authentic Irish music played before the show and during intermission helped to underscore the bleak nature of the piece. But there is also a steady musicality to the witty dialogue that helps to keep the action from becoming maudlin. A heating vent caused drowning out of some of the dialogue at the start of the show, but quickly subsided.

Thanks to the performances and fine attention to detail, McDonagh’ssecondinstallment may still stand apart from (and behind) the other two parts of the trilogy. However, it also just may have been gravely underestimated and is still very much a fine show worth seeing.

The show runs two hours with one intermission.

From left, Pat Delano and Brian Hunter in Pilgrim Soul’s “A Skull in Connemarra.” [PHOTO/MATTHEW CARR]

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