The Beauty Queen of Leenane – Martin McDonagh

The Beauty Queen of Leenane premiered in 1996 in Galway, Ireland. It subsequently had a successful run in London and won four Tony Awards in New York. The relatively simple staging requirements and the small cast of four characters has assured it many other productions in smaller cities, too – but beware, because this fine, small play requires accomplished acting and direction to transcend its essentially melodramatic level.

In a return engagement in Dublin, the original cast and director have assembled once again for a limited run. The results are rewarding: the electric drama of Martin McDonagh’s play is fleshed out with the expert performances that catapulted it to renown in the first place. It’s difficult to pinpoint why the play seems somewhat less dark than was its New York production with the same cast. It might have to do with the setting in which, in Dublin, the shabby cottage interior rises two stories to an open sky in a very high proscenium. In New York, that foul and littered kitchen had a much lower ceiling, resulting in a more claustrophobic sense of entrapment—most appropriate for this duel of wills between selfish, manipulative Mag Folan (Anna Manahan) and her daughter, Maureen (Marie Mullen), bound together in painfully mean patterns of attack and counterattack, each act of meanness eliciting ever greater meanness in response. In New York, too, the constant rain used in the setting further contributed to the inspired dreariness; in this Gaiety Theatre version, the rain is stagy and artificial, with lighting that makes it more cheery than dismal.

These are small quibbles in the face of perfomances that still seem fresh; director Garry Hynes finds the subtleties in the script, as well as its abundant, black humor. The play has perfect theatrical instincts: a sense of how to open up the story and reveal the histories and feelings of the characters with carefully measured and timed bits of information doled out as the plot unfolds with its deceptions, secrets, and betrayals interspersed with just the right amount of turnabouts and surprises. Things are, of course, not always as they seem.

Because the characters are so well drawn, hopes are raised in the viewer even as they are for Maureen, and when hopes get dashed, sympathy is thoroughly engaged. The consequences, if predictable, have nonetheless been earned in the dramatic sense. McDonagh also effectively conveys a powerful sense of place; beyond the near-subsistence existence of these women is the rural Irish setting, its isolation, its limited horizons, the sameness of its day-to-day life.

No one will mistake Beauty Queen of Leenane for Chekhov or O’Neill, but this is the work of a young playwright whose maturity may yet bring plays of greater depth and resonance. Still, in a time when effective new serious plays are few and far between, Beauty Queen offers a satisfying evening of theater.

San Francisco ,
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