If the exquisite new international touring production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane currently at the Mark Taper Forum is any indication, Martin McDonagh’s blackly comedic blowtorch of an Irish melodrama promises to be around for as long as there are controlling mothers and emotionally crippled daughters locked in a toxic embrace of blame, shame and mutually manipulative torment.
The icing on this 20th-anniversary staging is that it comes courtesy of Galway’s Druid Theatre Company and its legendary director and company cofounder Garry Hynes. A revival doesn’t get more definitive or faithful than this. Hynes’ 1996 production turned the then-26-year-old first-time playwright into both an overnight sensation and the Irish-British enfant terrible of those countries' playwriting renaissance of the ’90s. This searing reimagining of that debut — which with 1997’s The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lonesome West would comprise McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy — makes it abundantly clear what all the fuss was about.
The action mostly takes place in the grim confines of designer Francis O’Connor’s meticulously rendered, tumble-down stone cottage. There, 70-year-old harridan Mag (a magnificently malevolent Marie Mullen) and her spinsterish and resentful virgin of a 40-year-old daughter, Maureen (the equally fine Aisling O’Sullivan), grimly enact a purgatorial domestic existence that plays like an Irish village version of Grey Gardens by way of Endgame.
The disharmony of the women’s venomous symbiosis is disrupted when the blockheaded Ray Dooley (Aaron Monaghan) leaves an invitation to a party that — despite Mag’s attempt to destroy it — leads to Maureen’s reacquaintance with Pato (Marty Rea), Ray’s older brother who's visiting from London, where he works as a laborer. An awkwardly unconsummated one-night stand — and budding romance — between Pato and Maureen ensues, which the daughter spitefully and luridly trumpets in the face of the threatened mother.
This sets the stage for Act 2’s dizzying cascade of reversals, triggered by a second letter from Pato (in a tour de force delivery by Rea), this one a potentially redemptive proposal of marriage and the promise of a new life in America for Maureen. But when it, too, is intercepted by Mag, rather than salvation, a far different and more extreme fate opens up for both of the women.
Through it all, Hynes expertly teases out the dramatic ironies of McDonagh’s tightly twisting plot devices for all of their suspense and excruciating comic effect. And both Mullen (who originated Maureen in the 1996 production) and O’Sullivan offset their twin grotesques with just enough recognizable maternal warmth and filial affection to both heighten the human horror and accentuate the play's poignancy and pathos of its shock denouement.
O’Connor’s emblematic sea and rain projections, James F. Ingalls’ bleak lighting and Greg Clarke’s suggestive sound all lend the action an underlying quality of absurdist fable, which Hynes uses to foreground McDonagh’s broader political allegory about British colonialism and its continuing and tragic impact on Irish identity.
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