By Kimberly Rau
The New England premiere of Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen” opened at Gamm this weekend to enthusiastic audience reception, and no wonder. This dark comedy features a strong script, excellent direction and a fantastic cast.
The setting: 1960s northern England, in the final days before hanging became an illegal form of punishment. Focus in on Harry, a man whose entire identity is tied up in his work, and not the popular pub that he owns with his wife, Alice. Instead, his number-one personality trait revolves around his day job, which is really more of a vocation: He’s the second-best hangman around (a man named Pierrepoint is number 1).
Harry takes pride in his profession, and has no regrets, even as the country is embroiled in debate about capital punishment. Everyone in the pub has an opinion, of course, but Harry doesn’t question his vocation, even the instances where the condemned died protesting their innocence. Though Harry is generally well-liked, he’s not on the best terms with some from his past, and though he can ignore the (metaphorical) ghosts of the hanged, he can’t shake his former partner so easily.
While all this is going on, a stranger named Mooney shows up asking to rent a room above the pub, but, as charming as he can be, he’s strange, getting combative when Alice checks his references. He’s also spent quite a deal of time chatting with Harry and Alice’s teenage daughter Shirley, so when she goes missing, Mooney is the prime suspect. When things get out of hand and a tragedy occurs, everyone else involved leaves Harry to figure it out on his own.
Though it deals with dark subject matter, “Hangmen” is a wildly comedic ride, with sharp wit and enough plot twists to give you whiplash. Under Tony Estrella’s direction, the show comes to life, gripping you with its absurdity even as it makes you think.
Steve Kidd is Harry, an outspoken man who believes his word is the Gospel truth. He’s not a particularly likeable character, but he’s not detestable, either. He’s abrasive, but not particularly cruel. He compartmentalizes like a pro, separating duty from feelings, until things come a little too close for comfort. Kidd, a Gamm staple at this point, delivers a full character that you can’t help but relate to.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is John Hardin playing Peter Mooney. If Harry is the type to try and walk the line, Mooney is emotionally swinging for the fences. He’s charming, until he’s violent. He’s educated and witty, until he’s wronged. And he’s clever, until he backs himself into a corner. Hardin is a wonderful choice for this role, keeping you engaged whenever he’s on stage.
Karen Carpenter plays Alice, Harry’s wife who must manage the bar, her husband and their teenager, Shirley, who’s the first to tell you through her scowl that she’s not moody at all. Carpenter is fantastic as always, providing a sense of stability in the whirlwind around her. Abigail Milnor-Sweetser makes her Gamm debut as the unintentionally hilarious Shirley, and does a beautiful job with it.
In the end, this is less a play about capital punishment and more about how we react to change in our environment. At the end, Harry is left alone to literally stare down the consequences of his decisions, both in his career and in the immediate aftermath of a situation gone wrong. His friends, family and even enemies have left him, albeit temporarily, to pick up the pieces and reflect. Change has come to Harry’s little corner of England, and for better or worse, he’ll never be the same again. Don’t miss this stunning piece of theater, especially if you’re already a fan of Gamm-style performances, because this is one of their best.
“Hangmen” runs through Nov. 22 at The Gamm Theatre, Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at gammtheatre.org or by calling 401.723.4266.