The Beauty Queen of Leenane – Amelia Parenteau Responds

Photograph: © 2017 Richard Termine

In my senior year of high school, the new drama teacher somehow convinced half the boys on the football team to audition for a production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. They were cast, and we created a strange little stage family that spring, made of theater girls and football boys, with a shared adoration for pancakes and a tendency to lapse into our burgeoning Irish accents. Everything about the production was odd, but it worked, somehow, and earned McDonagh a special place in my heart.

Needless to say, I was eagerly anticipating Ireland’s own Druid theater company’s production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane at BAM, which ran January 11-February 5 this year. Both plays take place in small town, backwater, rainy Ireland, and demonstrate McDonagh’s unique talent in depicting a setting that is so bleak that even the audience is contemplating suicide, yet so hysterically funny they decide to hang in there until at least the end of the show.

I attended the last performance of the run with a packed house, and we were immediately sapped of our Sunday afternoon banter as the lights came up on a pure cement set featuring a cave grotto of a house, with rain streaming down in sheets outside. While that cold, wet, dank felt ever present, it served to offset the bright, funny, and physical performances of the whole cast.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a twisted love story of dreams and discontentment, yearning for the impossible. Aisling O’Sullivan as Maureen is a protagonist feeling trapped by her own circumstances, but also participating in her imprisonment by never quite figuring out how to fall in step with the world. The intertwining of love and obligation shown in relation to her mother Mag, played by Marie Mullen, was heartbreaking, as were the Shakespearean twists of timing and luck and devilishness and fate.

Mag and Maureen feed off each other, enabling the co-dependent relationship. Mag simultaneously doesn’t want to let Maureen lead her own life so she will stay at home with her, and yet is trying to protect her daughter, feeling she is too unstable to live on her own. Maureen plays the put-upon daughter, but is complicit in this exchange of brutal love, burning her mother’s hand on the stove just as her mother burns the love letters that come for Maureen. The source of Maureen’s yearning is Pato Dooley, loveably played by Marty Rea, who embodies the promise of a marriage, a family of her own making, and an escape from her homeland. Maureen convinces Pato to come home with her one night, and makes her desire unbearably plain, with exchanges like Pato saying, “That’s Ireland, people are always leaving, what can you do?” and her quick reply: “Stay.”

We learn that Maureen is eager to lose her virginity, but it doesn’t happen that night because Pato has had too much to drink. The director, Garry Hynes, cleverly places Maureen underneath the portrait of the Virgin Mary hanging in the kitchen when this subject comes up, twice, each time in a costume that matches the colors in the portrait. In one instance, Mag ominously and perhaps prophetically predicts, “You still do have the look of a virgin about you. Always have and you always will be.”

Their Irish brogue was a balm for the ears, despite the often harsh circumstances it described. One of my favorite scenes was Pato, in spotlight, orating the letters he has written home to Maureen and his brother. He’s earnest and conversational in his writing style, employing the circuitous grammatical construction symbolic of grand Irish storytelling.

Beauty Queen takes a hard look at the lies we tell each other and ourselves, revealing the concurrent, contradictory truths that often hide beneath them. I loved Maureen’s line, spat out in full contempt for her mother, “There’s no little spoons for liars in this house,” denying her the utensil she’s seeking for her porridge until her mother tells the whole truth. It’s harsh, it’s totally relatable, it’s heartbreaking, and nobody is wrong. You can’t lay blame on anyone for their actions, since their emotional motivations are so empathetically rendered, even when they’re committing terrible abuses.

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