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Review: THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE: Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Written by Martin McDonagh, Directed by Garry Hynes; Set & Costume Design, Francis O'Connor; Lighting Design, James F. Ingalls; Sound Design, Greg Clarke; Composer, Paddy Cunneen; Deputy Stage Manager, Anne Kyle

CAST: Aaron Monaghan, Marie Mullen, Marty Rea, Aisling O'Sullivan

Performances through February 26 by Druid Theatre Company at ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage, Emerson/Paramount Center, Robert J. Orchard Stage, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-824-8400 or

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the theatrical equivalent of eating a steaming, hearty bowl of beef stew on a winter's night. You can sink your teeth into it, chew on its dramatic morsels, and walk away feeling sated. While it won't warm the cockles of your heart, it might comfort you to discover that your own family relationships rank fairly low on the dysfunctional scale, at least as compared to the mother-daughter pair in Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's black comedy. The Druid Theatre Company's production at ArtsEmerson's Paramount Center is directed by Tony Award-winning Garry Hynes and features stellar performances from a cast of four, including Marie Mullen (Mag Folan) and Aisling O'Sullivan (Maureen Folan) as the warring women of Connemara, County Galway.

Druid premiered the play in 1996 and it eventually traveled across the pond to Broadway in 1998, where Mullen won a Tony Award for her performance as the daughter. She returns this time in the role of the mother and she seems born to the part. The same is true of O'Sullivan who now plays her daughter. They go at each other in a seamlessly choreographed bout between two lonely, needy women, both struggling for power in a zero-sum game. A plain, 40-year old who has spent the past twenty years as caretaker to her 70-year old housebound, manipulative mother, Maureen's resentment is palpable as she goes through the motions day in, day out. Her minimal opportunity to find happiness or anything for herself is repeatedly sabotaged by Mag, who selfishly worries about only her own welfare. However, the latter pays a price for her behavior as Maureen finds numerous ways to punish her in their symbiotic vicious cycle.

The Folan women share a small house in a remote location in the mountains which is evocatively rendered by set designer Francis O'Connor with dingy grey walls that make it appear like a prison cell. Above the one-story height of the combination kitchen/living area, the walls stop and the backdrop shows a gloomy sky, often accompanied by rain showers. Indoor lighting (designer James F. Ingalls) is also gloomy and mostly dim, provided by a bare bulb hanging over the dining table (reminiscent of an interrogation room), a harsh fluorescent light above the stove, and the glow from Mag's "telly" on the floor. Adding to the pressing weight of the visual images, Paddy Cunneen's musical compositions at the outset and during scene changes are somber and foreboding, and there are sound effects of rain and thunder (designer Greg Clarke), as well. The contribution of the design elements to the overall impact of the play cannot be denied, as the sparse, isolated surroundings of the characters informs our greater appreciation for and understanding of their hopelessness and despair. Their souls are imprisoned here as much as their bodies.

McDonagh alludes to the women taking an occasional foray to the outside world, but he introduces only two other people who engage with them. Ray Dooley (Aaron Monaghan), a 20-year old local man, comes to the house as a messenger for his older brother Pato (Marty Rea), a contemporary of Maureen. Pato works in construction in London, but is home for a visit, and dispatches Ray to invite Maureen to a send-off party for some family members. When she invites Pato to stay the night after the party, it develops from a roll in the hay into the potential for something much greater. Cue Mag to fire up her arsenal of sabotage weapons as the "gentleman caller" presents a clear and present danger to the status quo. Despite witnessing the rage and electric sparks that fly between Maureen and Mag, or perhaps because of it, Pato plays the mensch and reinforces his desire to pursue that potential. McDonagh gives us a modicum of hope that things will work out.

The second act begins with Pato, in England, narrating a long letter to Maureen. Rea is seated on a dark stage under a single spotlight, addressing his speech to a rapt audience. He is excellent in his delivery of this lengthy monologue, capturing the panoply of emotions that Pato is struggling to express. He wrings his hands, he pauses for effect, and he puts his heart and excitement into the pitch he is making to Maureen. Pato is the stand-up, decent guy in this quartet, and stands in contrast to his younger, immature brother. Monaghan plays Ray as fiery and fidgety, especially when he shows his frustration with having to deal with Mag. Even though he seems to have respect and affection for his older brother, he's not such a nice guy, although he does not exhibit the malevolence of Mag and Maureen.

The battle between mother and daughter is the crux of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, but it does not follow a straight line. At times, they share a moment of tenderness and give a hint of love underlying the vitriol (think George and Martha in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but their default position is conflict. It is difficult to separately describe the performances of Mullen and O'Sullivan because they are so totally connected to their roles and to each other. Their capacity to convey the comedy within the tragedy is masterful, and Hynes' direction allows the audience to catch a breath and relax with the laughs before the action slams them again. McDonagh's brilliant writing takes a bunch of twists and turns that keep us off balance, but always immersed in the story. It all adds up to a powerful piece of theater that should not be missed.

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz (Marie Mullen, Marty Rea, Aisling O'Sullivan)

From This Author - Nancy Grossman

From producing and starring in family holiday pageants as a child, to avid member of Broadway Across America and Show of the Month Club, Nancy has cultivated her love of the art and respect for the... (read more about this author)

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