Saturday, March 9, 2024


By Ruth Ross

A consummate chronicler of 20th century Irish life, playwright Martin McDonagh lays bare the hopelessness and disappointment that wear down the ordinary folks who populate his works. Given their Irish settings requiring thick Irish brogues, however, his plays are not often the fare of community theaters. (Right L-R: Elissa Strell, Will Ruppert, Sharon Garry)

Well, that the Chatham Community Players (who produced a splendid version of McDonagh’s The Pillowman in 2010) have remedied that dearth, once again serving as an example of great local theater across the river from the lights on Broadway!

This time out, they have mounted a heartbreaking, solid, beautifully acted production of McDonagh’s 1996 opus, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a study of emotional abuse, the horrors of aging, the shadow of mental illness and profound disappointment that fuels the resentment roiling the rundown stone cottage inhabited by the Folans—mother and daughter.

Set in the mountains of Connemara, County Galway, The Beauty Queen of Leenane tells the darkly comic, tempestuous tale of Maureen Folan, a plain and lonely spinster in her early forties, and Mag, her manipulative, aging mother, whose interference in Maureen’s first and possibly final chance of a loving relationship sets in motion a train of events that leads to physical violence and the play’s terrifying and heartbreaking dénouement.

The tale inexorably unfolds in a series of eight scenes over two acts punctuated by (mostly) toe-tapping Irish fiddle music provided by Sound Designer Joe DeVico, on an appropriately dingy set designed and lit by Roy Pancirov and Ed Whitman.

As Mag, the “senile old bitch” with a bull-dog face and upturned chin, Sharon Garry (left) is a mother-from-Hell extraordinaire, a bully who goads her daughter with vicious put-downs and imperious demands. Incessantly whining about the lumps in her Complan, a powdered energy drink popular in Ireland, and her dislike of a particular cookie, Garry’s Mag grates on everyone’s nerves, not just her daughter’s. Her portrayal of the fiendishly sharp, helpless invalid is so pugnacious and repellant that I found myself wanting to punch her in the nose. And Garry inhabits her character so completely that it was hard to recognize the actor taking a curtain call as such a despicable person!

Similarly, as Ray Dooley, a young man devoid of opportunity and ambition, Peter Corley (right) is equally annoying. He, too, whines a lot, but he’s fixated on the ball Maureen confiscated and refused to return a decade ago when it landed in her yard! He mopes around the cottage when he comes to deliver an invitation and a letter, almost reveling in his dead-end situation, talking about learning to drive and buying a car, but with zero ambition to do either.

Elissa Strell’s superbly moving Maureen (left) is the embodiment of disappointment, simmering desperation and full-on disdain for her mother and her situation. The contempt she holds for the former is palpable in the nasty insults, physical threats and passive aggression she engages in just to enrage the old coot. Dressed in frumpy, body-disguising clothing designed by Melanie Rajpal, Strell’s Maureen looks nothing like a beauty queen, but once she dons a pretty dress, a pair of pumps, and combs her hair to attend a party for Ray’s older brother Pato, she positively glows—an impression deepened in her romantic encounter with Pato, whom she brings home after the festivities and takes to her bed, and who dubs her “the Beauty Queen of Leenane.” Strell’s account of saying goodbye to Pato is positively lyrical and even more poignant given the final scene of the play. Just watching her deflate is worth the price of a ticket.

Finally, as the crux of the action, Will Ruppert is wonderful as the charming but not smarmy Pato, perhaps not the playboy of the Western world but an affable young man with ambition and dreams he actually plans to pursue. The sexual chemistry between Ruppert and Strell is totally convincing and hopeful. He, too, delivers a touching monologue—the recitation of a letter he sends Maureen—revealing his feelings for her—which sets up the gut-punch felt by Maureen (and the audience) in the final scene.

Director Bill Purdy is to be commended for keeping the tension high and for balancing the tragedy and the comedy so adroitly that the audience laughs aloud at one moment and sits in stunned silence the next. It’s a delicate balancing act, and he pulls it off very well.

The playbill has no listing for the production’s dialect coach, but I must say that the Irish brogues uttered by the actors are convincing and consistent. At first, it was a tad difficult to understand them, but as one became familiar with the cadence, the dialogue was easier to follow. Fortunately, the playbill provides a list of Irish phrases and words that help illuminate the verbal sparring, between Mag and Maureen, and reinforce the specificity of setting.

In the darkly comic and unsettling Beauty Queen of Leenane, Martin McDonagh raises several important questions: Who is most vulnerable? Most scheming? Looniest? Whether he answers them or not, you will find yourself discussing them on the ride home from the theater. The Chatham Community Theatre’s production is not only community theater but all theater at its finest. You’ll kick yourself if you miss their version of The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs through March 16, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sunday, March 10, at 3 PM, at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham. For information and tickets, visit online or call the box office at 973.635.7363.

Photos by Dawn C. Photography