The Beauty Queen of Leenane isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s exhausting, corrosive, and heartbreaking – and this is exactly why it should be seen. In a nutshell, it’s a play about the most extreme form of cabin fever. Written by Martin McDonagh and directed by Matthew Penn, it features McDonagh’s trademark dark voice and disturbing humor.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane centers on the dysfunctional relationship between 70-year-old Mag Folan and her 40-year-old daughter Maureen, set in the sleepy town of Leenane in west Ireland. Condemned to care for her aging and curmudgeonly mother, Maureen’s frail shell of a put-together woman gradually crumbles as she becomes increasingly stifled and lonely. Mother and daughter spend their days circling the room, barking demands and flinging remarkably cruel insults at one another. The abuse gradually builds, until Maureen is akin to a coiled snake, ready to attack and slither out at any opportunity. And when her opportunity knocks at the door in the form of a sheepish yet good-looking bloke by the name of Pato Dooley, here to whisk Maureen away, the tension between the two women reaches dangerous levels, as each one will stop at nothing to achieve her goal. In Maureen’s case, it’s to escape the confines of her mother, her dilapidated home, and Leenane altogether. In Mag’s case, it’s to keep her daughter with her, at all costs, and she becomes increasingly controlling and manipulative in her attempt to do so.
Suffocation is the name of the game in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which won four Tony awards when it was first introduced in 1996. This production is expertly crafted, singulating the human condition to an almost primeval one of painful honesty and comic cruelty. The set design of a dingy and dank kitchen mimics the oppressive vibe that often comes with a small town such as Leenane, a quagmire where old secrets die hard and everyone dreams of escape, though few ever actually leave.
The play ingeniously shifts the focus throughout as to who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist. Neither of the main characters dominate the pathos, and this is aided by the applaudable performances of the cast. Elizabeth Aspenlieder offers a crafty portrayal of the exhausted Maureen. We see a drowning woman who despises her life, and when her salvation is so close that it’s palpable, we almost can’t watch. At the other end of the room, Tina Packer’s manipulative Mag is harrowing, desperate, and yet still pitiable. Underneath the whispy gray hair and permafrown, there is a woman terrified of loneliness. Abjection is not an option for her, and she is determined to keep her daughter, despite the looming brutal consequences.
And there is the rub, underneath the doom and gloom of it all. The relationship between Maureen and Mag is as symbiotic as it is brutish. The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree in Leenane, and the two women are so cruel because they are so similar, in bite and in determination. The kitchen door to the outside is there, though neither woman can seem to bring herself to use it, and whenever Maureen leaves, she always returns. Meanwhile, Mag is scared both of her daughter and of not having her, perhaps out of fear of being unable to fend for herself, or perhaps out of genuine love for her daughter. The two Folan women have been locked in this poisonous relationship for so long that the question must then be asked: what would they would do if they found themselves suddenly without it?
Despite its heaviness, it wouldn’t be a McDonagh play without humor, and Beauty Queen finds its moments of light-heartedness. Comic relief mostly comes in the form of Ray Dooley, the slacker younger brother of Pato Dooley. During his visits, he schleps around the kitchen, making juvenile observations and teasing Maureen and Mag, always with a laissez-faire adolescent demeanor. He constantly searches for some form of entertainment, be it watching TV or being chased by the police. Basically, he is Leenane incarnate, and is equally emblematic of the general feeling of stagnation that all the characters are subject to. All four characters of Beauty Queen share a common theme: allow yourself to be unfulfilled for too long, and prepare yourself for lasting psychological disturbances.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is an excoriating journey, but nevertheless poignant and insightful. It’s a vibrant and brutal play, relinquishing hardly a single moment to hope that things will somehow work out. According to McDonagh, it’s not enough to plunge the knife: right when you think it’s to the bone, it must be twisted.