Dylan Cotter and Rachel Franke in Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”

Kindness holds hands with cruelty, humor with heartbreak, in Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” Arizona Repertory Theatre’s current offering.

The black comedy is brought to vivid life by director Hank Stratton and the cast of University of Arizona theater students.

“Cripple” takes us to the Irish island of Inishmaan, where the town gossip exchanges bits of news for food, the pretty girl in town is a flirt and mean, and where two women have taken in a young boy with disabilities and raised him as their own.

Billy has a twisted arm and a bad leg and has lived with the mystery of his parents’ fate all his life — the story is they committed suicide after he was born, but he’s got lots of questions about that.

He lives with sisters Eileen and Kate, whom he calls aunts. They have cared for him, fawned over him, and agonized over his fate. “Poor Billy’ll never be getting kissed,” Eileen says. “Unless it be a blind girl.”

That kind of casual cruelty is rampant in this play. But so is heart.

Billy’s yearning practically vibrates in the hands of UA junior Dylan Cotter. We quickly become invested in the character: We ache for the awful things people say about him, we long to see him succeed when he hops on a boat to a neighboring island in hopes of landing a part in a Hollywood movie, we want that pretty girl to stop being so mean to him and really see him.

This role is difficult for many reasons, not the least that he must spend the whole play with a hand twisted into his chest and a leg that’s gnarled and limp. Cotter deserves a massage. And much applause.

In fact, this whole cast was impressive, from the Irish accents that rarely wavered, to the pristine timing needed in comedy, to inhabiting the characters.

And the fact that they were so effective is especially impressive when you realize these aren’t pros but students you’re watching.

Elana Richardson and Kelly Hajek played the sisters with a keen sense of rhythm and ownership. Their love and worry for Billy was palpable, and we had no problem believing these were two sisters in their 60s who spent a life together caring about, and bickering at, each other.

Peter James Albert Martineau’s town gossip, JohnnyPateenMike, is shocking and hilarious. He stalks around trying to glean bits of information, encourages his old, alcoholic mother (a hilarious Chris Harper in impressive old-age makeup) to keep drinking in hopes she’ll finally succumb to the drink, and seems to have little regard for others. But the buffoonish exterior hides a gentle man, and Martineau gave us both.

Rachel Franke’s Helen was full of sass and unfiltered speech — she curses with abandon and some of the cruelest statements in this play come out of her mouth. Franke embraced the tyrannical character.

Connor McKinley Griffin was an annoying teen and relentless little brother to Helen. He is pretty magical on stage.

BabbyBobby, the boatman who takes Billy to the island, was given a quiet strength and a heart by Michael Schulz, which makes his actions in the second act particularly shocking.

Guy Norris nicely portrayed the only character in the play that had no eccentric quirks — Dr. McSharry.

“The Cripple of Inishmaan” is a powerful story of hope and despair, lies and truths. This production brings all that home.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@tucson.com or 573-4128.