What is England’s second-best hangman to do when the punishment is abolished and questions of innocence clouding his last execution leave him reluctant to chat with reporters? In Harry Wade’s case, it’s layering demurred protestations, drinking and occasional angry outbursts.
With twists perhaps only British playwright Martin McDonagh could conjure, Hangmen – onstage now at The Gamm Theatre – explores the men behind the executions, their wavering egos, human frailties, and relationship with fame. The two-hour experience is cloaked in laughter – dark, absurdist comedy is McDonagh’s forte – easing the story’s weight for the audience.
Hangmen opens in a jail in 1963 with a condemned man protesting his innocence as Harry, played icily by Steve Kidd, orders the noose set. The tone for the entire play is established in minutes – McDonagh’s rapid-fire dialogue, fast-paced activity, and a pall of uncertainty.
When the country abolishes hanging two years later, a dogged reporter appears in Harry Wade’s Public House for a reaction. Harry is initially reticent – “on the subject of hanging, I’ve chosen to keep my own counsel” – but eventually bares all with the reporter, including jabs at top hangman Albert Pierrepoint.
Simultaneously, a mysterious man named Mooney appears at the pub looking for a room and cozying up to Harry’s teenage daughter, Shirley. When Mooney stomps off angrily after Harry’s wife, Alice, calls his references, and Shirley seems to disappear, Harry’s former assistant Syd helps him imagine an elaborate kidnapping scheme.
Mooney’s sheepish return to the pub, without Shirley, sends a worried Harry into a rage that triggers a marvelously explosive scene. The appearance of Pierrepoint only heightens the tension, leaving the audience tittering at the inanity of it all.
The Gamm team long ago embraced the unpredictable McDonagh, with this production the latest to marry his clever dialogue with an outstanding cast featuring Gamm regulars and assorted newcomers, and brilliant direction.
In the hands of director Tony Estrella, the spirit and message of Hangmen are celebrated. He capitalizes on McDonagh’s pithy writing with stage and technical direction that underscores the thread of inanity. Early, for example, when asked about the possible innocence of the last man he hanged, a perfunctory sound triggers darkness onstage while Harry is awash in the blazing white light used in noir police interrogations. It’s a simple way to ease the tension of the moment, and light is used elsewhere for a similar effect.
Kidd is joined by Gamm regulars Karen Carpenter as Alice, her first role since before the pandemic, and Jim O’Brien as Pierrepoint. All enhance McDonagh’s characters – Kidd is able to slide from charm to rage in seconds; Carpenter infuses a steely core to Alice; and O’Brien incorporates various subtle yet humorous quirks to the hangman.
They are surrounded by new talent. Abigail Milnor-Sweetser transforms Shirley into a delightful caricature of an angst-filled teen. When she moves beyond her comfort zone and is disappointed, her reaction is a delightful combination of moxie and mania. Mooney is played by John Hardin, who easily devolves into the shifty villain.
Despite the overarching theme, Hangmen is not a discourse on capital punishment, but an examination of mankind as McDonagh draws together ordinary people, teasing out their insecurities and morals to offer a comic, even touching display of humanity.
The show is on stage at Gamm through November 26. For more information or tickets, go to gammtheatre.org.