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Playwright Martin McDonagh's severed hand

Profiles Theatre gets to the heart of the violence in A Behanding in Spokane



My wife wouldn't come with me to see the Profiles Theatre production of Martin McDonagh's A Behanding in Spokane. She's been off McDonagh since the spring of 2009, when we saw The Lieutenant of Inishmore together at Northlight. You can usually rely on Northlight not to upset your wife, but in this instance they'd obviously decided to shake things up and presented the bloodiest play by a writer prone to ugly mischief—a psychopathic love story about a bloodthirsty Irish nationalist and a girl whose idea of target practice is shooting the eyes out of cows. The climax has the nationalist taking apart the bodies of four men he's executed, three of whom are missing their eyes.

Since then I'm on my own when it comes to McDonagh. But, honey, maybe you should've tagged along for the Profiles show. It's really very good.

Not that you wouldn't have found it unsettling, too, dear. A Behanding in Spokane isn't the outright orgy of spurting arteries that Lieutenant is, but the two do have an awful lot in common. Dismemberment, for one thing. As the title suggests, Spokane concerns a medically unwarranted amputation. Our protagonist, Carmichael, claims that when he was a teenager some "hillbilly bastards" came along and carried him off to the train tracks, where they held his left arm down on a rail as the train went by. The hillbillies took the severed hand with them when they left, he says, and even waved good-bye with it. Carmichael has spent the 27 years since then doggedly pursuing two objectives: revenge and the recovery of his stolen hand. It appears that the revenge part has gone very well—the hillbillies, or maybe just some folks very like them, have had their comeuppance. But the hand remains at large.

Now Carmichael has followed the trail to a seedy motel room in a crummy town. Small-time, half-wit weed dealers Toby and Marilyn have promised to sell him his hand back for $500. The appendage they deliver, though, belongs to an aboriginal on display at a local museum. They swiped it thinking that they'd tell Carmichael it shrank and turned black over time. Carmichael doesn't go for it—he's too much of a racist not to discern the difference between pigment and discoloration.

You'd suppose the negotiation might end there, with Toby and Marilyn probably getting killed. But Toby convinces Carmichael that Marilyn simply brought the wrong hand by mistake; the right one is at home in the garage, on top of the freezer. Carmichael cuffs the pair to the radiator while he goes to retrieve the other hand. As an extra gesture of malevolence, he sticks a lit dinner candle in a gas can: either he'll be back with the one true hand or the candle will burn down to the can and cause the room to explode. Marilyn and Toby spend the next little while trying to get out of this fix. They also spend some time talking with the motel receptionist and Carmichael's mom, both of whom have got some nasty issues of their own.

Like Lieutenant, Spokane is populated by only three sorts of people: the truly psychotic, who have no sense of consequences or compassion yet feel a narcissistic compulsion to see their crimes as responses to slights committed against them; the truly stupid, who haven't got sense enough to keep even the notion of self-preservation clear in their heads; and the weak. That's McDonagh's normal, and a lot of the comedy in both plays comes out of the absurd interactions between these almost archetypal human categories. Like Lieutenant, also, Spokane speaks violence—real and implied—as its first language.

Still, Lieutenant premiered in 2001, Spokane in 2010. In the interim between them, well, I wouldn't say McDonagh has mellowed, exactly, but he's certainly gone a long way toward crystalizing his concerns and creating resonances around them. For all its mayhem, Spokane also has a stillness to it that the earlier play lacks. Some room for reflection. In the presence of that stillness you realize that what's central in McDonagh's Grand Guignol isn't the atrocities people keep committing against one another, but the fact that they can't seem to help it.

You might've felt the stillness if you been there with me at Profiles, sweetie. Rick Snyder's staging makes it palpable at just the right moments. The fact that Snyder has built the schizziest career in Chicago theater—alternating between nice-guy roles as an actor and scum-of-the-earth plays as a director—may've made him uniquely suited to bring out the subtleties in Spokane.

And then there's the fact that he's got Darrell Cox for a Carmichael. With his ironic weariness and deep, Ken Nordine-esque voice, Cox projects a patient, weirdly biblical fucked-upness that's absolutely perfect. If I have any criticism of this show, it's that I wish they'd find something sturdier than a narrow steam pipe to cuff Levenix Riddle's Toby to. One of these days he's going to pull too hard on it and down will come the willing suspension of disbelief.

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