The Gamm Captivates Audiences with Darkly Funny BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE
Stories about mothers have been around for as long as...well...mothers. And with Mother's Day coming up this Sunday, it's hard not to reflect and think about our own mothers or the other mothers in our lives. Or to remember some of the stories and memories that the word "mother" conjures up. With its production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Gamm Theatre offers up an undeniably darker and arguably disturbing tale of one mother and how she rules her house and her daughter.
Beauty Queen, written by Martin McDonagh, tells the tale of Maureen Folan, a middle-aged woman living in the town of the title, a small community in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland. She lives with only her mother, Mag, a woman who could be described with adjectives ranging from manipulative to mean to downright evil. Still, Maureen cares for her mother dutifully, even though she harbors resentment and bitterness about how her life has gone. When a man, Pato Dooley, enters into her life, and her bedroom, things between mother and daughter quickly spiral inexorably out of control.
McDonagh's play is a black comedy, make no mistake about that. But to call it that may not do it justice. It is a family drama, a realistic portrayal of universal human suffering, a laugh-out-loud comedy and an epic tragedy. The playwright has rolled all of this into a riveting piece of work that an audience cannot turn away from, even when they may want to.
Breathing life into this world is a group of supremely talented artists, led by director Judith Swift. She makes some brilliant choices that ratchet up the tension about as high as it can go. For example, one can't help but notice that Maureen and Mag are almost never staged so that they are close together. In fact, they almost always occupy opposite ends of the stage, a physical distance that matches their emotional distance. It's as if they are volatile lab chemicals that must be kept apart and when they do come into physical contact, it is always explosive and often violent.
Equal to the task of bringing that tension and violence to their roles are a superb group of actors. As Marueen, Jeanine Kane once again creates a character that is fully fleshed out and multifaceted. The audience can never really be sure what's going on deep down, inside this woman who harbors many secrets and unspoken emotional truths. Kane excels and creating a character who always has something simmering beneath the surface or just behind her eyes.
As the quintessential mean old woman, Wendy Overly is magnificent as Mag. In some moments, her actions and words are from a heart of pure darkness. But at other times, there are flashes of real sentiment and true sadness. It's impossible to tell what motivates Mag's actions, as there are so many emotions that flash truthfully across Overly's face as she embodies the role.
The two male characters are not as interesting, nor are they as fully developed in the script. Joe Short makes every moment he's on stage count, though, as Ray Dooley. He is all flailing arms and nervous energy as he bounces around the set. His character really doesn't serve much purpose other than as a plot device, but Short still creates a very real human on stage.
Steve Kidd, as Pato Dooley, does not fare as well, though it's hard to tell who's at fault for that. The character of Pato might just not be written as well as the others. Or Kidd may just not be the equal of his cast mates in some way or another. It was hard, though, to escape the feeling that something was off about his performance. Something was more shallow or superficial about it, with less depth of feeling or truth than the other actors on stage. It didn't help that he had little to no chemistry with Jeanine Kane, who was supposed to be his love interest.
Mention must also be made of another character of a sort, the set, as designed by Carrie Capizzano. She has created a home as weathered and worn as the people who live inside it. In a wonderful choice, the set also has a low-hanging ceiling that extends all the way downstage. While I'm sure the choice was partly practical, so lights could be hung over the downstage area, the ceiling creates a feeling that the characters are truly trapped inside this house, which, in fact, they are.
For some, attending this play may not be the best gift to give your mother on Mother's Day. On the other hand, if your mother, or anyone else you know, enjoys thought provoking, entertaining, riveting and first-rate theater, then you should bring them to the Gamm immediately.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs from May 2 through June 2 at The Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange St., Pawtucket, RI. Tickets: $36 and $45 (depending on day/time); preview and press performances (May 2-6) just $26. Discounts for subscribers, groups of 10 or more, seniors and students. Tickets at 401-723-4266 or gammtheatre.org.
Pictured: (L to R) Jeanine Kane and Wendy Overly. Photo by Peter Goldberg