Storekeepers Kate (Jennifer Mendenhall) and Eileen (Nanna Ingvarsson) also serve as “aunties” to an orphaned boy, Cripple Billy, whom they adopted as an infant, in “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” (Jae Yi Photography)

A handful of outstanding performances repeatedly levitate Scena Theatre’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” from workmanlike to sublime. That uplift may be intermittent, but it is worth the price of a ticket.

There’s more than a dollop of Samuel Beckett-style absurdism in Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play, set in the remote Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland in 1934. Every character we meet is nuttier than the last. And two of them, played by top Washington actors Jennifer Mendenhall and Nanna Ingvarsson, provide some of the aforementioned sublimity right off the bat.

The lights come up on a rough-hewn and nearly bare general store, its shelves stocked with nothing but canned peas. (The dead-on set is by Michael C. Stepowany.) Leaning against the counter are the extravagantly dour and dumpy storekeepers. Kate (Mendenhall), the more clinically anxious one, drums her fingers with dainty compulsion. She and Eileen (Ingvarsson) are waiting for their foster son, Billy (Josh Adams), to get home. They wonder if he’s still out staring at cows.

Billy’s “pretend aunties” and everyone else on Inishmaan call him “Cripple Billy.” His aunties took him in as an orphaned and disabled infant, but the story behind that keeps changing. Now a young man, Billy gets around all right, but he has a useless hand, a dragging foot and “a bit of a wheeze.” He can’t escape his nickname, although he has, by a long shot, more sense and kindness than his able neighbors.

Chief among the oddball inhabitants of Inishmaan is Johnnypateenmike (Matt Dougherty), the whiskey-soaked town gossip who sees himself as a journalist. Dougherty’s bibulous, quick-footed turn is terrific — right at Mendenhall’s and Ingvarsson’s level. There’s also the brazen flirt/bully, Helen (Megan Dominy), and her dim brother, Bartley (Kevin Collins).

Cruelty, both funny and bizarre, marks how folk deal with one another in McDonagh-land: One of Billie’s aunties says of a local girl, “She’d kiss a bald donkey . . . [yet] she’d draw the line at Billy.” Poor girl. Poor Billy. Helen boasts of hurting animals and likes to crack eggs on Bartley’s head. Billy has a crush on Helen, though she laughs maliciously at any show of affection or ambition on his part. Johnnypateenmike defies the good doctor (David Paglin) and pours whiskey down the gullet of his ancient mother (Mary Suib) in hopes that she’ll hurry up and die.

A companion piece to McDonagh’s ultra-violent 2001 play “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” “The Cripple of Inishmaan” sends up past portrayals of Irish poverty — the early-20th-century plays of John Millington Synge (“The Playboy of the Western World”) and Sean O’Casey (“Juno and the Paycock”), or “Man of Aran” (1934), the Hollywood docudrama by Robert J. Flaherty about life in the Aran Islands. It is the making of that film that turns the plot in “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”

Johnnypateenmike announces that Flaherty has set up cameras on neighboring Inishmore and wants to audition locals. Billy tricks the boatman Babbybobby (Christian Sullivan) into conveying him there, and what happens to Billy, as we hear in Act 2, will surely become the stuff of island legend.

Director Robert McNamara well understands the theatrical traditions at which McDonagh (who’s actually London-born) takes aim. And most of McNamara’s cast stays on the right key of absurdity and with fairly consistent accents (thanks to dialect coach Jessica Hansen). Along with Stepowany’s set, Robert Croghan’s grimy period costumes hit just the right note, too.

Beyond Mendenhall, Ingvarsson and Dougherty, there’s inspired work happening in “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” Collins’s clueless Bartley and Paglin’s kindly doctor add real-world humor. In the title role, however, Adams’s Billy exudes sweetness but lacks grit. Dominy’s bullying Helen and Suib’s dotty old lady need more between-the-lines nuance in their portrayals.

With those caveats, it’s not surprising that a few scenes fall flat. But don’t let that keep you from ferrying yourself to “Inishmaan.”

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

If you go
The Cripple of Inishmaan

Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lab II, 1333 H St. NE.
202-399-7993. www.scenatheatre.org.

Dates: Through Nov. 29.

Prices: $25-$45.