‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’
Through Sept. 15
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has either seen some very scary stuff or has a darkly wild imagination. Let’s hope it’s the latter. In his intense, 1996 black comedy “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” the relationship between old Mag Folan and caretaker/daughter Maureen makes the sisters’ bond in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” look downright cozy.
Now playing at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, “Beauty Queen” (the first of McDonagh’s trilogy set in Leenane, a tiny hamlet on the west coast of Ireland) is rife with horror and laughs. Lucky for us, the production is helmed by director Jeremy Skidmore who leads a top-notch cast in plumbing the tragicomedy’s many facets, ensuring what could be an over-the-top grand guignol is something all too fathomable.
At 40, Maureen (Kimberly Gilbert) is a virgin who’s never been in a relationship. Her days are spent waiting on her demanding mother Mag (Sarah Marshall) in their isolated stone cottage. It’s a tedious and lonely existence, but mother and daughter pass the time playing games — mind games of the sick and twisted variety. For the pair, life is an unending power struggle. Now and then Maureen gets out, usually for food shopping, but always her prison-like situation is waiting.
Maureen’s possible salvation appears in the form of neighbor Pato Dooley (Todd Scofield). He’s home on a visit from his construction job in England when he and Maureen get together for a night of boozy amour. But naturally controlling mama Mag isn’t having it, and her evil determination to quash the budding romance kicks off a string of sneaky betrayals and terrifying retributions.
As mother and daughter, Marshall and Gilbert are superb. Marshall, who is gay, nails Mag’s many moods: infantile, charming, diabolical and palpably rotten (whatever it takes to finagle her own way). As Maureen, Gilbert wonderfully displays a range of toughness and vulnerability. Scofield gives a solidly touching performance as the thoroughly decent Pato, a plain laborer who definitely is in over his head with these crazy Folan women. And Joe Mallon is appropriately obnoxious as Ray, Pato’s younger brother.
McDonagh is a masterful storyteller. He draws us in slowly. Initially it seems Mag is your garden variety spoiled old woman with a bad hip who likes her tea hot and porridge without lumps, and that Maureen is the harassed skivvy with a sharp tongue — her every chore is performed with a string of hilarious threats and profanities. But as the play unfolds, it becomes clear that this less-than-functional household isn’t simply the result of a mother and daughter spending too much time together. While her two sisters eluded Mag’s grasp via marriage, Maureen, with a history of breakdowns, remained at home as her mother’s sole caretaker, not an enviable role under the best of circumstances.
Kudos to the actors and dialect coach Leigh Wilson Smiley: the Irish accents are thick and consistent (and to me, sound authentic). For the first five or so minutes of the play, in fact, I panicked. What are they saying? But with a little concentration and settling into the rhythm of the talk, all was soon well. Mag and Maureen talk a lot about Complan, Kimberleys (a powdered supplement and cookies), and make myriad other alien references, so prior to curtain it helps to peruse the glossary provided in the program.
Though a lot of action takes place offstage, the entire play is set in the cottage’s shabby kitchen designed by Tony Cisek. With its ancient wood stove, dwarf fridge and stinky sink (that doubles as a loo for Mag), it’s easy to get a sense of Maureen’s unenviable workaday life. Though not small, the room is claustrophobic — ripe for explosion.
The play’s title becomes a sweet in-joke shared between Maureen and Pato, happily and then sadly evoking what they briefly had and even more so what might have been. “Beauty Queen” is a play that affects long after the lights go black.