McDonagh was in his mid-20s when he wrote this play – his first – over the course of a mere eight days. He showed wisdom well beyond his years in tackling the complex dynamic of a deeply dysfunctional family relationship. The story of an aging and spiteful mother and a daughter who feels trapped in the role of caretaker is simultaneously intimate and epic in its plotline.
The play revolves around Maureen Folan (Jeanine Kane), a 40-year-old spinster who is the sole caretaker of her manipulative and selfish 70-year-old mother, Mag Folan (Wendy Overly). Maureen’s sisters have left to pursue marriage and families. Maureen, however, with a history of mental illness, is left in the small town in a deeply dysfunctional relationship with her mother.
The Folan home is visited by Ray Dooley (Joe Short) and his older brother Pato (Steve Kidd). The small town imprisonment is tedious for Ray, a dull-witted and oafish teenage hooligan. Pato is a middle-aged construction worker exhausted with his decision to live and work in England and disappointed by the lack of fulfillment and loneliness in his life.
The spark of a romance between Maureen and Pato flares up in the first act, and is continued in the second through a notable letter in the form of monologue by Pato. However, through deception and dark revelations, hopes are dashed and the well-foreshadowed, epic tragedy culminates in darkness.
There are moments between mother and daughter that play as lighthearted comedy and escalate into almost uncomfortable exchanges of darkness. One such conversation involves a killer on the loose and the two women nonchalantly exchanging scenarios involving the other being grotesquely murdered by the aforementioned murderer. This is classic McDonagh. He is a master of Verfremdungseffekt: the effect of “distancing” or “alienation” that works by drawing the audience into laughter, only to be horrified at their own pleasure the next moment when the darkness of the larger picture is revealed.
Director Judith Swift staged the play brilliantly as simple and raw. She invented nothing and denied nothing, letting the script and the masterful performances of the well-chosen cast do the work. Her choice of allowing the American actors to go full out with the Irish dialect was risky, but masterfully executed by the capable cast.
Joe Short created an excellent young Ray Dooley, playing him as boyish and oafish, and never forgetting his role as the tragic fool. Steve Kidd as Pato Dooley was charming, endearing and the consummate vulnerable soul. Wendy Overly plays Mag fearlessly and demonstrates a perfect balance of selfish spite and vulnerability. Jeanine Kane was impeccable as Maureen. Kane found the most simple and forthright means of furthering the story in a role that is fraught with psychological pitfalls and all too easily could leave an actor chewing scenery. Kane avoided all of the role’s traps and left one with a sense of pity for a woman who commits extreme acts of cruelty throughout the play.
Michael McGarty designed a spot-on set, creating a variety of workable acting spaces on the Gamm’s shallow thrust. The dingy, plain wooden plank home was quintessentially poor-Irish with a peat log-burning stove and a mantel complete with a framed photograph of JFK. The dowdy, plain-folk costuming by Marilyn Salvatore was no more or less than was called for and demonstrated well the poverty of the small farming village.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a powerful production. It is certainly not the “feel-good hit of the season.” However, the Gamm stages its classical, tragic structure and macabre, comic tones to near perfection. Beauty Queen is an excellent piece of theater and well worth seeing.
The play runs through June 2 at the Sandra Feinstein Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, RI, 02860. Tickets can be purchased by calling 401-723-4266 or by visiting www.gammtheatre.org.