By Mike Hoban
Beauty Queen of Leenane – Written by Martin McDonagh; Directed by Garry Hynes; Set & Costume Design by Francis O’Connor; Lighting Design by James F. Ingalls; Sound Design by Greg Clarke; Original Music Composed by Paddy Cunneen. Presented by the Druid Theatre Company of Galway at Emerson/Paramount Center’s Robert J. Orchard Stage by ArtsEmerson, at 559 Washington St., Boston through February 26th
Loneliness is a disease. It will gnaw at you like a cancer, and much like the disease of addiction, it can force you to abandon your basic human principles just to stave off that horrible feeling of emptiness. That point is driven home with both laughter and pathos in the “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” the tragicomic masterpiece now playing at the main stage of Emerson College’s Paramount Center. The play, which won multiple Tony Awards as well as a slew of ‘Best Play’ accolades when it made its debut on Broadway in 1998, is now in the midst of a twentieth-anniversary tour by Galway’s Druid Theatre Company, which swings through LA, New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Ann Arbor before heading to the Hong Kong Arts Festival in mid-March.
“Beauty Queen” is a quintessentially “Irish” play, a black comedy with a turbulent undercurrent of horror and sadness running through its witty (and cutting) dialogue – and it is as funny as it is heartbreaking. It tells the story of Maureen, a 40-ish woman who is not only unmarried, but still a virgin, who lives with and serves as caretaker for her 70 year-old mother Mag in the isolated Irish village of Leenane in the 1990’s. It is an absolutely loveless relationship, and the two snipe at each other like mortal enemies rather than any mother and daughter you’re likely to see on stage.
When we first meet Mag, she appears to be a standard issue persnickety older woman, loaded with trivial complaints for her impatient daughter, but we soon realize that there is a real venom beneath the idle chatter. There’s a reason Maureen’s two married sisters have nothing to do with their mother, and the burden of being stuck caring for the ungrateful and manipulative old harpy is just one of the elements that has left Maureen bitter and resentful.
When local man-child Ray Dooley comes to deliver the news to the women that there is to be a welcome home party for his brother Pato the next night, Maureen has stepped out, and Ray, fearful that the old woman will forget, writes down the invitation on a slip of paper for her to pass on to her daughter. When Ray leaves, she destroys the note in the wood stove, revealing her devious nature while giving us a clearer picture of the etiology of Maureen’s simmering ire. Fortunately for Maureen, she crosses paths with Ray on his way out, and after her mother lies about not knowing anything about the party, a battle begins and we see the old world justifications that Mag uses to (theoretically) protect her daughter from the outside world, although we know she seeks only to save herself from being left alone.
Mag’s worst fears are realized when Maureen brings home Pato after the party, and he reveals his lifelong crush on her, referring to her as “the beauty queen of Leenane”. He spends the night with her, setting the stage for fireworks between Maureen and her mother, and also providing us with the much-needed backstory for Maureen, which makes the rest of the tale all the more painful, even as the searing exchanges keep us laughing.
Playwright Martin McDonagh is a master storyteller, and not a single line of dialogue is wasted, no matter how seemingly trivial. The cast is extraordinary, beginning with Marie Mullen (who won the Tony for portraying not Mag but Maureen in 1998) who strikes the perfect balance between befuddled old lady and calculating witch with her performance. Aisling O’Sullivan is brilliant as the beaten-down Maureen, wearing the countenance of a woman who has spent far too long wallowing in resentment and rage, and we silently cheer for her when light finally comes into her life, however briefly. Marty Rea as Pato is a perfect counterpoint to Maureen’s crazy, and Aaron Monaghan is a scream as the Aussie-soap opera loving Ray. Composer Paddy Cunneen provides an ominous sense of foreboding beneath the comic front with each scene change, keeping us off-balance throughout.
This is an amazing production, and I don’t expect to see anything like it anytime soon. Just go. For more information, go to: https://artsemerson.org/Online/