The world of Martin McDonagh is dark, funny, regularly violent, and above all unstable. Stories, identities, and narratives are not to be trusted, and surface readings are rarely accurate. This is perhaps nowhere more true throughout the playwright’s oeuvre than in The Beauty Queen of Leenane now receiving a sharp, stellar production at BAM. Under the direction of Garry Hynes, who became the first woman to win a Tony for direction when she helmed Beauty Queen on Broadway in 1998, McDonagh’s acerbic dialogue pops to life, threatening at all times to maim with its power. The excellent cast proves adroit with such a potent script, and the result is a production that manages to be at once haunting and a whole lot of fun.
Maureen Folan (Aisling O’Sullivan) is forty, single, and serving a life sentence of care for her elderly mother Mag (Marie Mullen), who shows little appreciation for her daughter’s constant labor. When perennially unlucky in love Maureen has a tryst with Pato Dooley (Marty Rea), she jumps on the opportunity to boast her maturity and potential independence to the mother who has made efforts to suppress both throughout Maureen’s life. This tension of Maureen’s urge for freedom against Mag’s efforts at repression fuels the play’s drama.
Beauty Queen is full of McDonagh’s trademark wit and caustic worldview, but this production finds its great strength in the performances at its center. O’Sullivan shows us a defeated and weary woman, but still manages to find the spark of girlish eagerness that drives Maureen to Pato’s side. Opposite her, Mullen creates a Mag who is wholly bitter and selfish, but retains clear senses of human vulnerability and desperation. As much as she takes glee in thwarting her daughter’s joy, she knows that she cannot get by without her caretaker. In the cramped, dank space of their home in the Irish countryside (beautifully designed by Francis O’Connor), the two women cultivate a bitter enmity that threatens to burst (or implode) at any moment.
The excellence of this production should be no surprise coming from Druid, a theater company based in the play’s home of Galway. The renowned Irish company premiered McDonagh’s play 1996 to great acclaim in Ireland, London, and New York, where it played first at the Atlantic, and then on Broadway, garnering four Tony awards. One of those trophies was a Best Actress nod for Mullen, who played Maureen in that production, but returns twenty years later as Mag. Taking their lead from Mullen and Hynes, the rest of the cast shows not only a profound fluency with the show, but also a deep understanding of its characters and their struggles. In these experienced and skillful hands of Druid, McDonagh’s play bursts to life.