The Beauty Queen of Leenaneby Martin McDonagh. Directed by Matthew Penn.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...the same crux of the same matter."
Elizabeth Aspenlieder, David Sedgwick, Tina Packer; photo: Enrico Spada
Sometimes just looking directly at someone creates dislocation in nature. That is truly the "crux of the matter" in Martin McDonagh’s play "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" now viewable on the stage at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. With the performance skills and emotional chops of actresses Tina Packer and Elizabeth Aspenlieder leading the way as the mother and daughter Folans a connection of eyes brings about changes that affect their lives in the most incredible ways.
Maureen Folan addresses her controlling and vicious mother in as cold and matter-of-fact a manner as she can summon; sometimes there is nothing benign or charming or caring in her tone because the older woman does not exactly inspire love, affection or respect. Mag Folan is not honestly available to any of her three daughters or any of her neighbors or traditional friends. She is, in fact, the Empress of alienation. She demands imperial service even at the meagre level at which the two women are living. She inspires one thing and one thing only from two of the three other people in this play: loathing. The third is confused and unsure how to deal with the woman.
But Maureen knows how best to bury this dragon and she does it constantly. She does it so often and so well that late in Act Two when nothing else works for her she takes her fate in her own hands and makes the difference that should alter her life forever; sadly it does and an old pattern resurfaces in an unanticipated way.
Tina Packer makes the most of the nastiness Mag unleashes constantly. She is the Queen of Hearts, the Wonderland one, who has been stripped of her crown, her scepter and her usual "Off with her head!" capability. A constant complainer drinking constant Complein (a chicken-flavored powdered drink that remains lumpy and disquieting) Mag in Packer’s presentation is just as unpleasant a housebound bitch as Sheridan Whiteside is in "The Man Who Came to Dinner." She annoys everyone even when she asks for a favor. Packer plays this element of Mag perfectly, never missing an opportunity to look as unpleasant and unappealing as she sounds. Her Mag is an uncomfortable woman, small, angry and mean whenever possible. Her whole goal seems to be to make her daughter who cares for her (the other two won’t even visit her) as angry and as mean as she herself is with her minor ailments.
Aspenlieder brings her finest game into play as Maureen, Packer’s baby daughter who cannot look her mother in the eye. Every time she turns to address Mag, this Maureen finds something else to look at as she speaks. She knows the smirk that holds pride of place in Mag’s face will infuriate her and torture is high on Maureen’s list of manners in which to treat her hateful mom. She fights to avoid giving her mother any opportunity to take her down. Combat overwhelms her any time her mother catches her eye and the combatant spirit suddenly leaps into flame. By the same token Maureen is a different woman in the presence of Pato Dooley, the man of her dreams. Aspenlieder is sweet, fun, sensual and overwhelmingly sexy in her moments with him. Her control over the two sides of her personality is wonderful to see and in this most dramatic of her recent roles she proves that a great comic actor can also be a fine tragedian with the right material and director to guide her.
The Dooley brothers are played nicely by Edmund Donovan as Ray and David Sedgwick as Pato. Never seen together in the play they still have a perfect simpatico in the looks, style and personality, Ray a bit young and grudge-holding, Pato a mite older and firmly in control of emotions which never really cross his face at all, is the furtive lover and as he woos Maureen it becomes increasingly clearer that he might, or could, love this troubled woman. Ray, on the other hand, really fits into Mag Folan’s world. He also loves torture and he does it in small, minor, painful ways. His scenes with Packer’s Mag are delicious moments of equal strengths in constant competition for prominence. Sedgwick comes through this performance into a star’s role in this company. He is that strong and endearing and in charge of his inner man. His debut role could lead to more roles in the future. He would be interesting to watch develop within the womb of this theater company family.
The fairly realistic set by Patrick Brennan was a wonderful addition to this particular stage’s versatile, if stagnant, space. Lena Sands’ costumes work just fine for the play and its people and Matthew Miller’s lighting design conforms beautifully to each scenes time.
Matthew Penn has broken some new ground here and it is most certainly his decisions on major points that must have made a difference in this company’s playing style. I would not be too surprised to learn that the alienation of unmatched eyes was his idea and how to integrate the dance elements of the play into the whole thing. For there is a strange sense of dance to the movement of characters around the facts they must deal with, a sidestepping that becomes as much a visual element as it is an inner response to some more on-stage prompt.
You don’t have to see more than one "Beauty Queen of Leenane" in your lifetime. This is my fourth production and it does still surprise me every time. This time could be the one that finishes the play for me as the curious performance choices at Shakespeare and Company have given me more insight into Maureen and Mag than I ever anticipated possible. That should be enough for a lifetime. If you don’t know this play you will come away with a real understanding of how difficult a simple relationship can be and impossible it is to live a constant threat to your sanity in the next room.
Edmund Donovan & Tina Packer; photo: Enrico Spada
Tina Packer & ELizabeth Aspenlieder; photo: Enrico Spada
The Beauty Queen of Leenane plays in repertory through September 15 at Shakespeare and Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.