The Banyan Theater Company serves up a dark comedy with The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
By Kay Kipling
The darkly comic, often violent plays of Irishman Martin McDonagh may not be everyone’s cup of “tay.” But for those who appreciate his skill in shifting tone and mood back and forth without losing any of his characters’ uniqueness or authenticity, a production of a McDonagh play is a welcome arrival.
McDonagh’s earliest play to receive critical and popular attention, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, is now onstage in a Banyan Theater Company production at the Cook Theatre, and it should send a chill down your backbone to help cool you in these dog days of summer. Set in a small town near Galway in the west of Ireland, in the early 1990s, Beauty Queen revolves around a 40-ish spinster, Maureen (Jessica K. Peterson), and her 70-something mother, Mag (Kim Crow), whose sparring relationship is evident from the first words of the play, which is set in the kitchen of an old rural cottage.
Kim Crow and Jessica K. Peterson in The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
The back and forth of their dialogue is amusing and quick, and at first we may wonder if some affection lies behind it. It soon becomes apparent, however, that this mother-daughter relationship is one for the books. Mag is a selfish, exasperating old hag who has made her unmarried daughter’s life miserable, and Maureen has all but given up hope of getting out from under—until an old neighbor, Pato Dooley (Derry Woodhouse), returns for a brief visit from his exile in England. Is there a chance of these two lonely people kindling a love affair that will last? Or will Mag doom the future to repeat the past?
It’s intriguing to watch McDonagh’s ever-changing battleground throughout, and to try to ascertain who is more the victim here, the often cruel Mag or the equally tough Maureen, who has a history of mental illness to boot. Both Peterson and Crow have strong presences, and as the tension builds to an inevitable confrontation, they are totally believable as two people locked in a life-and-death struggle.
Woodhouse is touching as Pato, especially in a lovely monologue in Act II where he writes a letter home to Maureen. And the fourth member of the cast, Gordon Myles Woods, provides much of the evening’s comic relief as Pato’s younger brother, Ray—a rather dim bulb whose sense of outrage against the police, his anything but prosperous hometown and the other three characters as they all try to make use of him is often wildly funny.
Director Gil Lazier has helped craft many fine moments in McDonagh’s work, and the set design by Jeffrey W. Dean and costumes by Jaye Annette Sheldon (especially Mag’s outlandishly frumpy attire) help place us squarely in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Mag and Maureen’s world. It’s a world you may find yourself thanking God you don’t inhabit, but it’s memorable.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues through July 12; for tickets call 552-1032 or go to banyantheatercompany.com.