Powerful Staging Uncovers The Ugliness In Beauty Queen
by Ed Real
The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, the much-acclaimed first play that propelled young Irish playwright Martin McDonagh to international celebrity, recently opened quietly at the True Brew Theatre in a joint venture by Beefield Productions and Evangeline Theatre Company. The event should have been accompanied by more fanfare. Not only is this a major play by a rising new artist and the first local production in the too-long dormant Warehouse District theater, newly refurbished and under new management; it is an outstanding production with two stellar turns by prominent actresses.
McDonagh's emergence as a major dramatic figure may baffle some observers. His plotting can seem derivative; his foreshadowing is practically accompanied by bells, whistles, and neon arrows. The surprises come with the manner in which he addresses his plots and themes.
The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, for example, has been variously described as a distaff version of The Playboy Of The Western World, the classic Irish comedy about parental slaying, and as "a lurid Irish inversion of The Glass Menagerie" in which a mother connives to bring about the opposite of Amanda Wingfield's intentions - "the banishment, rather than the capture, of her plain daughter's lone gentleman caller."
As mother Meg (a devilish, cruel old crone) and her daughter Maureen (a vicious-tongued fortyish spinster) spar in their desolate rural home over such inconsequential matters as late tea and lumps in porridge, the stove on which the homely potables are prepared assumes a presence. There's an old show business adage about not producing a gun on stage unless it is to be fired; McDonagh gives us the loaded kettle and the portentous poker.
It is perhaps possible that those who compared McDonagh's play to such past-masters as Synge and Williams were overlooking a more obvious inspiration - the movies. The relish that these two grotesque women bring to their symbiotic enmity takes on the macabre humor of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane. McDonagh's genius is that he so nimbly juggles such diverse inspirations, giving them a unique spin that moves the audience to sardonic laughter and sniveling pathos. Such a dramatic conjuring trick would not be possible if the playwright did not have a dazzling command of language to express extremes of emotion from vile hatred to self-effacing concern.
While McDonagh dances a fine Irish jig on the narrow line between grotesque comedy and realistic melodrama, it is important to have a company that can follow the same unconventional tune. Director Perry Martin, who has wisely chosen to underplay some of the more gothic elements of the script because of the intimate nature of the True Brew house, has a cast quite ready for such a challenge.
Charlotte Schully finds in the conniving old crone Meg a powerful nastiness that has eluded her in some previous essays into cold-hearted characters. Janet Shea makes daughter Maureen take a palpable delight in her creepy fantasies about her mother's demise, but still evokes a haunting sadness as the child assumes the identity of the parent (another movie allusion - this time to Hitchcock's Psycho?).
In contrast to the histrionic fireworks of Schully and Shea, the men of the cast offer mostly comic relief. Michael Cahill is the hapless Pato Dooley, who is Maureen's last best hope for escaping her pitiable parental hell. Unlikely and unsuccessful lover that he is, the buffoonish Dooley can be quietly affecting, especially in his delivery of the text of the undelivered letter so crucial to the plot. Barret O'Brien is comically effective as Ray Dooley, Pato's inept messenger who is blithely oblivious to the emotional upheaval around him.
The Beauty Queen Of Leenane is a play that will challenge audiences as much as it challenges its cast. It is a darkly comic vision of hell, and a hell of a good yarn.
Janet Shea, standing, and Charlotte Schully play mother and daughter in True Brew's Beauty Queen Of Leenane.