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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
By Elyse Sommer
As directed by Matthew Penn, following the claustrophobiic lives of Packer and her co-star the company double hat wearing Elizabeth Aspenlieder (communications director and actor) adds up to one of the best evenings of theater I've seen this season.
The play remained vivid enough in my memory so that I knew how the tragedy bubbling beneath the black comedy would eventually come to a boil. But no matter. If anything, I was even more caught up now than originally. McDonagh's remarkable success while still in his twenties turns out to be no flash by night since it's not based on particularly original or full of surprises plots. What made him the darling of critics and audiences and makes the current revival fresh as a just out of the oven loaf of Irish Soda bread is the originality with whih he brought his Irish-English storyteller's gifts to familiar dramatic devices, making this an almost deliberate sendup of gothic flavored comedy-dramas and other classic works
And so The Beauty Queen of Leenane revolves around the much done situation of a daughter stuck with being a demanding parent's caretaker. It's also a little bit of Chekhov with its characters trapped in deadly boring environment and a poker instead of a gun as a prominent prop. While the cottage in the Connemara village of Leenane that the Folan mother and daughter share is shabbier and less well equipped than Nora and Torvald Helmer's, the play's end is brings to mind Ibsen's Doll's House. To further add to all these familiar touches, the entire action and denouement hinges on the stock device of a letter ending up in the wrong hands.
Packer as the mommy dearest who gets hold of those letters in this production looks and sounds nothing like the twinkly charmer known to those of us who have followed her performances, lectures and introductions as artistic director over the years. The British accent that has delivered so many of Shakespeare's lines with such eloquence is now a thick enough brogue to take some getting used to. Scowls and deviousness have replaced the always endearing smile and chuckles. An unflattering wig and Lena Sands' shapeless clothing designed to bulk up her recently slimmed down frame, complete the portrait of this mother from hell. As Jason Asprey (the King of the main stage's Love's Labour's Lost ) who sat next to my husband on opening night whispered at intermission "I can't believe that's my mother on stage!"
Monstrous though she may be, Packer's Mag Folan is marvelously despicable. And she's got a most suitable stage daughter in Elizabeth Aspenlieder who over the course of eighteen seasons has gone from strength to strength in a great variety of roles. Aspenlieder is almost too pretty to play a forty-year-old virgin chafing in her role as drudge and caretaker to an ungrateful, unpleasant mother. Yet, as she first enters through the wooden door of the kitchen-living room of the play's single set (smartly detailed by Patrick Brennan), also unflatteringly swathed in layers of clothing by costumer Sands, she is indeed a drab country mouse — more rat than mouse really when you combine her plain appearance with the anger and frustration that is evident in every move she makes, every word she speaks and the occasional abusive treatment of Mag. Clearly this mother-daughter relationship is an ongoing battle in which there's a fine line between oppressor and victim.
The first two scenes establish the grim world in which this mother-daughter tug of war plays out with talk about mundane non-happenings and activities revolving around Maureen's resentful caretaking of the semi-invalided Mag. The relationship is built on a mutual neediness, with each taking turns at gaining dominance over the other. Except for a static radio and television set, this power play drives their loveless, dead-end lives.
The return to Leenane by Pato Dooley (David Sedgwick, a charming and worthy successor to Brian O'Byrne who created the role originally) from a stint as a construction worker in England, is the trigger for the plot to thicken. We see Maureen metamorphose from a colorless drudge into a woman sexually fulfilled and suddenly seeing a chance to walk out of her physically and emotionally uncomfortable prison. While her long ago first attempt to escape Leenane ended disastrously with a nervous breakdown, she feels that with Pato at her side, she could make another more successful break.
Naturally, Mag fears life without Maureen. Seeing Pato as a threat she does her best to change his view of Maureen as the beauty queen of the title to a less rosy picture — a picture that exposes her past mental problems and her current cruel ways which include her literally holding Mag's hand to the fire.
Pato, though stronger than Maureen, has found life in London difficult and lonely, and is unfazed by Mag's accusations. His second act opening monologue in the form of an epistolary proposal is incredibly touching. It also effectively heightens the tension by introducing a second letter to keep out of Mag's destructive hands. But from the moment we hear Pato's instruct his not too smart younger brother Ray (Edmund Donovan, another excellent supporting performance) to deliver the letter unopened and personally to Maureen, that Ray's impatience and Mag's craftiness will turn this dark tale pitch back.
Painful as some of those darker scenes may be, there's plenty of humor. Best of all, it all works as that rare modern day theatrical commodity, a thoroughly satisfying, richly atmospheric well-made play with edge. Matthew Penn's sensitive and well-paced direction applies even to the pre-opening welcoming announcement via an Irish brogue voiceover and the Irish music between scenes. Each member of the outstanding ensemble speaks with a creditably thick, but not too thick, brogue and brings out the nuances of the characters and the place that has shaped them.
Fortunately, unlike so many summer productions, this Beauty Queen of Leenane has a nice long run. Don't miss it!
Other Martin McDonagh plays we've reviewed:
the first New York production of The Beauty Queen of Lonane
Sukll in Connemora
The Cripple of Inishmaan
A Behanding In Spokane