Hooray for Brian Shea! This inspired actor, who has been gracing Bay area stages for almost 25 years, is at his splendid best these days as Mick, the protagonist of Martin McDonagh’s entertaining if not entirely satisfying A Skull in Connemara. Mick is a gravedigger whose specialty is excavating seven-year-old burial sites and disposing of the contents so there’ll be room for new arrivals. When he’s asked to dig up his own wife’s grave, a much whispered-about possibility is again on people’s lips: Did Oona really die in a drunk-driving accident, or was she already dead when the crash occurred, a victim of her husband’s machinations? As embodied by Shea, Mick is exceedingly complex, as conversationally sadistic as just about everyone he knows, capable of who can say what crime if he feels like it, or of what kindness if he’s so disposed. But what makes Shea’s performance so superb isn’t just its complexity; what makes it riveting is its microscopic precision, as if every single syllable, each mere gesture has been carefully prepared and practiced for the most specific of effects. Where most actors play one emotion, Shea plays all that feeling’s subsets, all its momentary contradictions and paradoxes and ironies. A few weeks ago, I was distressed to see a misdirected Shea lose all his subtlety in Hat Trick’s Lend Me A Tenor; but in Skull the artist of detail is back, and he offers nothing less than a great performance. Acting like this is so rare, one comes away from it stunned.
But that’s not necessarily the emotion one gets from the play itself. Though Jobsite Theater’s production is top-notch, Skull seems to me to be one of the least substantial of McDonagh’s works, one that lacks the thematic power of The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, or The Pillowman. There are whole sections of Skull that are fascinating, even hilarious, but don’t contribute much of anything to the drama’s ultimate meaning. I guess you can call Skull a whodunit, but not a lot is at stake as we wait for the answer, and the verbal savagery of the characters sometimes seems almost perfunctory. There are indelible scenes — one that involves smashing skulls with mallets is like nothing else I’ve ever witnessed — but by the end of the drama, we don’t know very much more than we did after 10 minutes. There’s more philosophy in Hamlet’s few moments with Yorick’s cranium than there is in this whole confection.
Still, actor Shea has a worthy foil in Diana Rogers, who plays the matronly MaryJohnny as a near-immoveable stone figure, outwardly taciturn, inwardly burning with vicious, volcanic hatred. Still furious after an insult 27 years old, MaryJohnny lets Mick know that she’s calmly waiting to see the insulters driven into hell. Greedy as she is venomous, crafty as she is unforgiving, she reminds us of the Mag character in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, another woman whose cruelty is the most distinctive thing about her. As Mick’s fellow gravedigger Mairtin, Brandon Mauro is fun and vibrant, though his Irish accent is only intermittently convincing; and as the policeman Thomas, David M. Jenkins is fine, though he too seems to want to throw his accent out the window and get on to the serious business of making us laugh. Paul J. Potenza’s direction is first class all the way, but Brian Smallheer’s set of Mick’s home has a flimsy look when it should only have an impoverished one. Fortunately, the graveyard scene is persuasively designed, and if again one thinks of Hamlet, well, that’s how seldom this particular setting has turned up in the 400 years since. The appropriately downscale costumes are by Katrina Stevenson, and the fine lighting is by Ryan L. Finzelber.
In better plays like The Cripple of Innishmaan, McDonagh has shown us a woeful world in which good and evil are inextricably implicated in each other, human cruelty is the default attitude, childhood is monstrous, and love usually chooses an unworthy object. One might argue with this depiction (and I myself find a good deal of it false), but one can’t claim that McDonagh has failed to make his case brilliantly. This playwright, whose Ireland belongs with Synge’s and O’Casey’s, is usually a masterful creator not just of characters but of plots that express, with little compromise, “the way things are.” Skull is an exception: it delivers on comedy and personality but stints on meaning. That’s a problem. But on the other hand, Skull lets Brian Shea show his stuff, and that’s a small miracle. You decide which matters more.
A Skull In Connemara
Three-and-a-half out of five stars
The Shimberg at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. WC MacInnes Place, Tampa
Through Apr. 9: Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 8 p.m.