The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Eric Peterson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I can’t put my finger on why..."
There’s a recessive gene somewhere, a chromosome perhaps, that informs a certain state of instability in the emotional makeup of some mothers and daughters. When control is the prime issue, as it is in Martin McDonagh’s play "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," that recessive sense comes to the fore in a big way.
Mag and Maureen live alone together in a creaky old farm house on a hillside in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland. Their relationship is not good; at best it is testy at its worst it is dangerous. Mag tells lies about her daughter to everyone, especially to men, and Maureen rebels by making up a history that may or may not be her own. They pull at one another emotionally and sometimes physically, and no torture is too great for either one when it comes to controlling the actions of the other. Mag has seemingly destroyed her daughter’s life and her chances at a life outside this small town and tiny home. Maureen is her servant and only Mag’s death will bring about her chance to escape. When she finally gets a man to want her, the situation only gets worse for everyone.
Michael Providence and Emily Jon Mitchell; photo provided
Not a snappy comedy, as you can tell. In its current incarnation at Oldcastle Theatre Company’s Bennington, Vermont home, it doesn’t even get its usually uncomfortable laughs. That doesn’t really matter, though, because the two actresses who go at each other for two hours are doing a wonderful job at playing the ugly realities while the two men with whom they spar are doing their finest jobs playing the ridiculous in their characters.
As the unstable and overly cruel daughter Maureen there is Katrina Ferguson. She is tall, big-boned and plain, a stunning combination in the playing of this part. Ferguson makes Maureen alluring at times, seductive and pretty, but she never lets the character shine unduly or display too much of a good thing in her character. When confronted with a story of insanity in her past, she does a wonderful job of parlaying the story into just that, a story. Even in a state of confession, later on, she manages to make her boyfriend, and us, believe that Mag is making things up. Ferguson does it with subtle gestures, facial expressions and a voice that pours rich, thick cream onto the surface of anything she want to coast on. It’s a beautiful performance right up to the final moments of the play when more is revealed than she has even conceived of up to that point.
The boyfriend here is Richard Howe delivering a fine performance, particularly in his letter writing scene at the top of Act Two. He is, and looks, a trifle too old for the part, but he plays it well enough so that the discrepancy between age and experience in Pato Dooley is smoothed over by the actor’s work.
Playing his brother is a newcomer to this company, Michael Providence. His Ray Dooley is a game lout, into paralyzing the competition in a conversation by constant insistence and repetition. What could be annoying becomes almost charming, and certainly disarming, in his performance. There is even something odd enough about the lad to make you wonder if he could be the dotty one in the quartet of characters.
Another newcomer to the company, Emily Jon Mitchell, plays Mag Folan, Maureen’s irascible and irritating mother. I always marvel at an actor or actress who, over the age of forty, can memorize lines and perform a difficult role with apparent ease, as Ms. Mitchell does here. She has control of her tone of voice so that each utterance has its own double layer of meaning. She has an overwhelming sense of the moment and she makes each turn of events pay off for her nicely. She is almost sweet enough to kiss, and always annoying enough to swat, like a bug. Mitchell outdoes herself in each successive scene until we’re pretty sure she’s the crazy one, but there are still places she wants to take us, and she sets out on her way with confidence and a depraved sort of pride. It’s a wonderful characterization that Mitchell gives the woman: a horror who is almost endearing. I think it was what McDonagh was aiming for when he wrote her.
Kenneth Mooney has created a well-designed production and Eric Peterson has put his actors to work within Mooney’s setting and brought on the flames of desire, anger, hatred and lust. That the set doesn’t burn down is due, only, to the restraint in the playing of Katrina Ferguson. Lit from within, she withholds her heat most of the time and that helps a lot.
See this play twice and it will permanently destroy your desire to visit Ireland and meet the people there. It is clear that though they might fascinate you, they will also frighten you. Let this be a lesson, then, in travel clearance: The Beauty Queen of Leenane is great theater and a travel-trend destroyer. Among other things.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane plays through September 13 at the Bennington for the Arts, located on Route 9 at Gypsy Lane in Bennington, Vermont. For tickets call the Oldcastle Theatre Company box office at 802-447-0564 or find them on line at www.oldcastletheatreco.org.