The Lonesome West: Will it leave you more lonesome?

Martin McDonagh wrote The Lonesome West.

In The Lonesome West, brothers Valene and Coleman repeatedly threaten to kill each another. It’s a comedy. (Photo by Mark Reznek)

The Lonesome West is about forgiveness—kind of, if you squint. But I do not forgive The Lonesome West.

Martin McDonagh’s 1997 script is part of a trilogy that also includes The Beauty Queen of Leenane and A Skull in Connemera. All three are set in Leenane, a particularly hopeless and murderous little village on Ireland’s west coast. McDonagh plays his characters’ despair for laughs, which can be a remarkably productive strategy.

In The Lonesome West, middle-aged brothers Coleman and Valene Connor squabble and brawl incessantly. For reasons revealed later in the play, Valene owns everything in their greasy little hovel and, like a toddler who hasn’t learned how to share, he endlessly reminds Coleman of his ownership: “my floor”, “my poteen [moonshine]”, and so on.

There is a giddy vivacity in their language. A lot of comedy is about transgression and these boys know how to transgress. Accusing Valene of being cheap, Coleman says, “He’d steal the shite out of a burning pig.” And, when Coleman claims to have had a sexual encounter with a young beauty everyone calls Girleen, Valene says that Coleman is “a virgin feckin’ gay boy” who “couldn’t pay a drunk monkey to interfere with him.”

Because it’s so energetic, surprising, and rhythmic—the feckin’ “fecks” snap through the dialogue like beats on a snare drum—that the texture of the piece is seductive.

It can also get repetitive. In Act 1, I was grateful for the arrival of Girleen, who comes to the cottage selling her father’s poteen, because her slyer, slipperier sensibility disrupts the brothers’ flat-out aggression. Girleen teases the heck out of the local priest, Father Welsh, for instance—claiming to be pregnant, claiming to be considering life as a whore—because she’s sweet on him.

Wisely, McDonagh creates an even more significant disruption at the top of Act 2. Father Welsh, who is an alcoholic, and who is in a more or less permanent state of crisis about his Catholic faith, has written a letter to Coleman and Valene, and he speaks that letter in a quietly touching monologue. He asks the brothers to forgive one another and to release the love that, he is sure, lies beneath their battles.

At this point, I was in the thrall of The Lonesome West, and I could see why a Christian company like Pacific Theatre would present this Cave Canem production. But then The Lonesome West betrayed me.

Throughout, The Lonesome West is packed with violent imagery. Coleman blew his father’s brains out at point-blank range with a shotgun, for instance, and whether or not it was an accident is an open question. This violence is extreme and, juxtaposed with the characters’ blasé attitudes about it, it’s played for laughs. Because the violence doesn’t feel real, this strategy works: for me at least, a lot of this material is funny.

But, in Act 2, there’s an image of animal cruelty that crosses a line. It’s horrific. And, although it’s not presented as comic exactly, it’s not fully contextualized either. The characters notice the information, but they roll over it. The horror becomes a sensationalistic plot point. And I think that’s immoral. I think it desensitizes the audience. And that’s why I can’t forgive The Lonesome West.

What about the production? Well, John Voth is doing an excellent job of playing the rhythms as Valene while staying responsive and giving his character an active inner life. As Coleman, Kenton Klassen doesn’t go quite as deep, but he still delivers a strong characterization. The battles between these two characters are energetic, but I wish director Evan Frayne had found more rhythmic variety. Josh Reynolds deserves credit for staging the many, often cartoonish fights.

The accent that Sebastien Archibald gives to Father Welsh slips and slides, but Archibald’s delivery of the Act 2 monologue is masterful. And I unreservedly admire Paige Louter’s work as Girleen. Not only does she get the rough humour right, she also finds the delicacy.

Sandy Margaret’s detailed set feels filthily authentic, and, with its use of bands including The Pogues, the sound design by Matthew Macdonald-Bain and Curtis Tweedie effectively matches the relentless vitality of the script.

But ultimately, a script needs more than vitality. It also needs a defensible moral centre and I’m not sure The Lonesome West has one. Yes, you could argue that it’s about despair and that, in that sense, it compassionate. But, as I see things, The Lonesome West also brutalizes its audience at least to a degree—and brutalization only increases hopelessness.

THE LONESOME WEST By Martin McDonagh. Directed by Evan Frayne. A Cave Canem production presented by Pacific Theatre at Pacific Theatre on Thursday, October 26. Continues until November 11.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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