The Beauty Queen of Leenane

By Jocelyn McMahon

MANY OF US have experienced or witnessed some unusual family dynamics, some of the strangest being the mother-daughter relationship. But to put a new perspective on family issues, simply peek into the life of Mag and Maureen Folan, the central characters in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the first of a trilogy that debuted in 1996.

Stuck in a dreary life, the isolated duo, Mag, an ornery aging spinster, and her frustrated daughter, Maureen, who has grown bitter having dedicated her life to caring for her ungrateful mother only to become a spinster herself. The two spend their days fighting a never-ending guilt war that can only be described as, well, sadistic. A cruel competition of who can make the other feel worse, their daily banter consists of debates over who might kill whom first (hypothetically of course). Caught in a trap of co-dependency and spite, this twisted relationship takes its course as Maureen finally gets her first, and probably last, chance at love with Pato, a local construction worker, and Mag sets out to wreck it by confiscating and destroying a note Pato’s younger brother Ray brings to the house for Maureen. This relationship is enough to make anyone’s family issues look mild in comparison.

We see little chance for growth and opportunity in McDonagh’s writing, and when it does arrive, it is soon crushed as these realistic characters face absurdly ruinous conflicts. McDonagh explores irony like no other in both his scripts and screenplays, most famously his 2017 Oscar-nominated Film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which did win Oscars for both Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell). And though his stories offer little to no hope, his distinct and absurdist style that is often described as dark humor (putting it mildly) hooks audiences and manages to keep them engaged throughout the rough subject matter explored in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. His running jokes, my favorite being the dispute over the preparation of Mag’s Complan, a vile-sounding type of powdered chicken soup, helps us get to know the characters and lighten the subject matter under review including isolation, manipulation, abuse and even murder. 

The single-set show slowly opens on the dismal kitchen/living area of the home of Mag and Maureen, where the audience will remain stuck, as the characters are, for the remainder of the show. One must quickly adapt to the dialect of West Coast Ireland and the slow-paced timing demonstrative of the culture, but though it may take a moment to get used to, in no way does this make the show boring; conversely, it immediately transports the audience into the scene where the bar for emotional drama is set high at the outset.

A small but potent cast understands the script inside and out and builds a realistic community that is well-acted by all.

Karel K Wright’s crotchety Mag commands the stage as we see her character flip-flop from convincing helpless old lady into full-on manipulative beast. She has clear command of the dialect and is well-understood. She can make your skin crawl with never ending-grievances, but her vulnerability shines through as we discover the insecurities that motivate her actions.

Meanwhile Julie James’ Maureen dishes it right back as we see what years of emotional enslavement and abuse can do to a person. And yet somewhere deep down we know she loves her mostly domineering mother, otherwise why would she stay? Her performance accurately portrays the lonely ache of an old spinster mixed with the naivety of a young maid; there were just a few moments where it was hard to understand her under the Irish accent.

Andrew Davids is mind-blowing as Pato, originally just the local heartthrob that spends the night with Maureen and promises her hope for a future outside Leenane, Davids adds so much more to the character and conveys a depth in his sincerity that makes him the ultimate protagonist (in no way cliché). His monologue at the top of Act 2 is one of the highlights of the show.

Though some might argue that Ray, besides being a messenger, is possibly disposable in the overall plot. Travis Rynders has a great command of the character and adds a layer of depth that explores the frustration and rage of being expendable. His scenes with Mag are effective as the two are initially at odds, but slowly form a bond as they understand the feeling of being easily forgotten, and Mag makes him feel useful, even if her underlying intent is merely to exploit him.

McDonagh’s writing is genius, with its own form of morbid sarcasm and wit; it can be easily misinterpreted and takes a specific type of person to direct it (probably why he directs many of his own films). However, Susan Myer Silton’s vision is clear as day in her direction. A piece that could be easily misunderstood, or come across as mournful or even silly, it maintains its initial intent and stays poignant and humorous throughout. “The play exposes the underside of the unspoiled refuge that is Ireland’s West Coast,” Silton writes in her director’s note, “…The alienating, marginalizing and soul eroding effects of its isolated setting.”

A beautiful venue, the Colligan Theater rarely gets to flash its technical muscles in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. However, the artistic choices do not go unnoticed. The dark living room is highlighted by a realistic window displaying a picturesque view that is actually a wide screen digital monitor set right behind the window. Though it is a view tourists would travel thousands of miles to see, no one seems happy, and as the show progresses the window seems to exemplify the feeling of something that could have been, but never was, a feeling revisited throughout The Beauty Queen of Leenane. And while the rotating stage was only utilized briefly, it takes a quarter turn at the end of Act 2 when we see a glimmer of hope for Maureen and Pato to escape their dismal life. Sadly, it never comes to be and the stage returns to its initial state by the end of the show.

We see every character in this play grapple with his or her insecurities. Some characters pit those insecurities against each other and use manipulation to protect themselves. At the end of the day each character is dealt a terrible hand of cards and is forced to play them. As actor and artistic director of Jewel Theatre, Julie James writes, “I didn’t set out wanting a scene in which those things happened to those people, but if you create the logic of that story it’s going to end up in that dark place. The characters are going to converge like the iceberg and the Titanic.” This motivation is well conveyed as you see these quirky characters face scenarios where things could turn out for the better, but where everything goes incredibly wrong. 

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo