Theater Review: Sixteen Years After Its Premiere, The Beauty Queen Of Leenane Still Has Teeth

A friend of mine, referring to the A&E show Hoarders and probably jokingly, said, “I watch it so I can recognize the signs.” And while the set of Kitchen Dog Theater’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane isn’t quite that level of cluttered, you know quite certainly that a desperate person, or persons, as it turns out, lives there. It’s the way cans are stuffed into already overburdened shelves, the piles of miscellaneous junk in the corners. It’s not homey, or lived in. It’s just sad, and as the play barrels on into the dark and dangerous, it’s also just gross.

If you are one is familiar with McDonagh, who also writes movies (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), one might be on pins and needles waiting for the hammer to fall in the second act, when you know everything is going to go kabloeey in some really atrocious, rotten human way. The Irish writer is a master the black comedy, and 16 years after its first premiere in Ireland, Leenane has teeth. Here, despite a bit of an uneven keel, the strong ensemble cast, led by a deep, creeping performance from Karen Parish as the put-upon daughter Maureen, makes the waiting more pleasure than pain. It’s a good production of a demanding play with roles that are tough to cast.

And if we can get a good idea of the state of a person from the state of their home, we meet the two women at the center of play in equal shambles. Maureen Folan (Parish) is 40, a virgin, worn by life and Leenane, the remote Irish village of her birth. She lives with her aging mother, Mag (Nancy Sherrard), who is the definition of overbearing and difficult. The two torment each other at regular intervals—when she’s not complaining about her many maladies, Mag demands porridge, tea, and something called Complan, a British meal replacement, which Maureen invariably, out of spite, presents to her mother “lumpy.” Maureen complies with all these requests with jerky, violent movements, her anger and resentment simmering barely below the surface. But lest you feel too sorry for Maureen, you have the nagging feeling that as much as she’s a victim, she’s also someone who perpetuates a terrible situation when the kind thing to do would have been to distance herself long ago. You just don’t know why yet.

This is a credit to Parish’s skill. The problem is, it’s Mag who’s supposed to be truly heinous—physically disgusting, mentally disturbed—and we don’t feel her viciousness as completely as we should from Sherrard’s performance. She plays the surface comedy of the role well, but can’t reach the truly twisted. Her actions come off as the random ravings of a senile old woman rather than a schemer who is truly premeditated and vicious, and in turn, this skews our view of the final act. It’s an imperfect production, but a worthy one, with excellent accent work on behalf of the cast and dialect coach Sally Nystuen-Vahle. Like me, it might take you several beats to understand everything the actors are saying.

When Pato (Scott Latham) Dooley, Maureen’s old flame, comes back into her life, Mag makes every attempt to prevent and then ruin Maureen’s happiness. Also in the mix is Ray (Drew Wall), Pato’s younger brother, who gets called in to play, unknowingly, a vital role in how Maureen’s life eventually turns out. Wall’s character is such an idiot, and he does something so terrible that we should hate him. Wall plays the fool so well, that we can’t help but liking him a little, bursting as he does in and out of that horrid little house with all the energy and vitality of a youth its inhabitants no longer have.

Still, the first moment that the prospect of love, or even just that of a satisfying adult relationship, appears, it lights a passion and a prettiness in Maureen that her anger and resentment of her mother can’t touch. When Pato, who comes back to the house she shares with her mother after a night of drinking at a going away party for some of Pato’s relatives, traps her in the glow of the old refrigerator, she glows, too. He calls her “the beauty queen of Leenane,” and for a second, a moment, a night, we can believe it. That’s about how long the prospect of happy ending lasts, too.

Image: Nancy Sherrard (Mag), Karen Parrish (Maureen), and Scott Latham (Pato) (Photo by Matt Mrozek)