In PURE Theatre’s devastating, excellent second go at The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the original cast comes together to again spin this Irish black comedy, in which a duty-bound, newly-40 single woman metes out her days in a modest cottage on the West Coast of Ireland, where she ministers to the mind-numbing, relentless demands of her aging, meddling mother.
Sound like the well-trodden turf of family dysfunction in modern theater? You’ll want to think again. Then think again still. In the darkly comic, deftly deceptive terrain of English/Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, truth is a slippery and sinister thing. Here, getting to the ice-cold heart of a mother-daughter matter is as psychologically fierce and suspenseful as an action thriller — well, one with a cup of tea thrown in for good form.
Fans of McDonagh’s film In Bruges will recognize the Tony and Academy Award-winner’s uncanny knack at serving up his menace with a side of wry. In that feature film, as well in the stage works that comprise McDonagh’s two County Galway-based trilogies, the threat of violence looms, but it’s a cruelty that is often in partnership with a curiously affable humor and limp try at civility, which both can work to render the malevolence more chilling still. McDonagh honed that skill in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, his breakthrough play that debuted in 1996 and also enjoyed a Broadway run and Tony win.
Under the archly elegant direction of PURE’s Rodney Lee Rogers, Maureen (Sharon Graci) trudges through her dull waking hours, obliging her mam Mag (Cynthia Barnett) by doling out cups of tea, bowls of porridge, and servings of a lump-laden dietary supplement called Complan — all of which are mixed with equal parts acrimony and simmering rage. Resigned to this grim daily dance of servitude and swipes, Maureen and Mag alternately spar and submit, repeatedly rolling near boiling point like the ever-present teakettle that Maureen lugs around.
Then Maureen receives a chance glimmer of hope when a neighbor’s son returns to town for a family function. On leave from England, Pato Dooley (R.W. Smith) takes a shine to Maureen at the party, reigniting his youthful attraction to her, during which he coyly coined her the Beauty Queen of Leenane. The trick, of course, is that Maureen must first free herself from her hillside trap. As the plot thickens, we discover that she is far more ensnared than we realized.
Through deepening backstory and flashing glances of the women’s interior demons, we stumble in the holes of our own presumptions about Maureen and Mag, presumptions that McDonagh has brilliantly lulled us into making. More unsettling still is that the playwright seems to catch us in our own naïve trust in narrative conventions, centered as they often are on some redemptive bent of the human mind and soul. But, seriously, don’t despair: As he has his laugh at our gullibility, he offers up as many laughs to ease that sting, and the joke is all around.
This brilliant sleight of writerly hand can only succeed on the strength of subtle and absorbing performances, which distinguish PURE’s finely ferocious production. As Maureen, Graci poignantly, tenderly pulls at our heartstrings, biting her tongue and checking her aggression as Mag winds her up and tears her down. Graci is so affecting and alluring that you cannot help to root for her, even at times when you clearly should not. She finds a well-matched counterpart in Cynthia Barnett, whose obstructionist Mag is wholly unsympathetic out of the gate, until Barnett reveals her furtive, fearful underbelly, thus tempering the blunt force of Mag’s selfishness.
As Pato, R.W. Smith offers warm, safe ground for Maureen and audience members alike, putting forth his kinder, gentler version of love and family. And, as Ray Dooley, Pato’s slacker younger brother, David Mandel delivers consistent, much welcomed comic moments, since the hapless Ray is even more hard pressed than we are to sort out just why Maureen and Mag do the wretched things they do.
On a somewhat bizarre life-imitates-art note, I actually spent a summer with my own mother in my folks’ hillside stone cottage in Leenane, which is likely of the same 19th-century variety referenced in Richard Heffner’s humble faux-stone set. While I am happy to report that ours was a far more convivial generational interlude, the rain-pummeled West of Ireland meant many days likewise holed up with telly and teakettle.
The authentic starkness emanating from PURE’s stage perfectly captured that feeling of hardscrabble, rural Connemara in the heart of Gaelic-speaking Ireland, where residents have historically found themselves trapped by harsh conditions, natural and manmade. Mirroring her faulty contract with Mag, for example, Maureen carps on Ireland’s reliance on England, which she accuses of suppressing the Irish language and identity.
And, even as the characters grapple with these harsh conditions, PURE’s production masterfully pulls its punches — that is, until it doesn’t, when it delivers them with a gasp-inducing intensity that will leave you reeling well beyond the blow. As truths are revealed, The Beauty Queen of Leenane has you right where it wants you. And, as you cheer on and condemn these two inextricably linked women, you may just find your own moral certitude called into question, as McDonagh makes us all culpable in the darkest of deeds.
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