We have for years loved the intimacy of the Chester Theatre Group’s Black River Playhouse as a venue for plays with a lot of emotional impact. Now, they could hardly have found a better vehicle for that wonderful performing space than Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
Whether the audience is comfortable being in such close quarters with McDonagh’s characters is another question. As the lights come up on the shabby and somewhat claustrophobic downstairs of a cottage in the rural village of Leenane, in Ireland, we may find ourselves instantly both intrigued and repelled by the characters we meet. This is not the shamrocks-and-leprechauns Ireland we might imagine.
Maureen Folan, a 40-year-old virgin, delights in the verbal torment of Mag, her 70-year-old mother. Any sympathy for Mag, however, rapidly dissipates when the old lady responds with vicious barbs. She is dependent on Maureen, whiny, demanding and manipulative. This is a dysfunctional relationship to the max.
Maureen has been essentially stuck with Mag’s care by two sisters who have escaped into marriage. Mag, who boasts about her “urine infection” as if it’s a badge of honor and empties her chamber pot into the kitchen sink, is determined to keep control of her daughter for as long as she needs her.
It’s important to know that Leenane (a real village in Connemara, County Galway) is a remote outpost from which most of the young people seek any opportunity to get away. A low-paying job, for example, cleaning offices in London—Maureen’s one unsuccessful attempt at escape—seems like a desirable option. Leenane might as well be a tomb, and that is how Maureen sees it.
Enter Pato Dooley. Maureen has met him at a party. He is also 40-ish and is home for a few days from his job doing manual labor in London. Maureen brings him home (one of the few times Mag is not sitting like a giant gargoyle in her rocking chair in the corner) and makes her sexual intentions clearly known to the not-unwilling Pato. He is the one who calls her the “beauty queen of Leenane” and then carries her up the stairs to spend the night.
This is a melodrama with some sharp comic overtones, as the dialogue between the two women, vicious though it is, cannot help but sparkle with McDonagh’s incisive wit. The plot twists as Pato, in a sad, sweet letter written to Maureen from London, seems to offer her the chance for escape. It is delivered by Pato’s younger brother, Ray, who is easily manipulated by Mag. Is she going to destroy her daughter’s last chance?
Melodrama laced with comedy turns very dark as the plot evolves. What seems like trivial jostling turns into a moment of stark horror (incidentally, beautifully pulled off by some clever stagecraft). What seems like an Irish soap opera turns into real tragedy. This is strong and intense stuff and, if you’re in the audience at the Black River Playhouse, you are right in the middle of it. You may be amused or repelled, but you will never be bored.
The cast of four performed superbly. Geraldine Baillod and Victoria Steele, as Mag and Maureen respectively, bring genuine passion to their roles. They really come alive. Matt Meier manages to make Pato the character who evokes the most sympathy. And Dale Monroe, as his hapless younger brother, is both funny and frustrating.
Stephen Catron’s crisp direction keeps the action moving evenly and consistently despite the radical mood swings the play takes. Catron took advantage of the violin-playing talents of his teenage son Zachary, who performs traditional Irish tunes during scene changes. This is not in the script and adds a nice bit of atmosphere without changing anything.
The only problem we had with this absorbing production is that the Irish dialects took some getting used to. It took a few minutes before we could easily understand every word. But this is not an uncommon problem when dialects are essential to a play. And for anyone who wonders, the product referred to as Complan, which Maureen insists Mag drink, is a nutritional supplement.
The play will run next weekend, Friday, May 18, Saturday, May 19, and Sunday, May 20, with 8 PM performances Friday and Saturday and a 2 PM matinee on Sunday. For reservations, call 908.879.7304.