‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ at Northlight: Mother and daughter wage deadly war of wills
Review: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” by Martin McDonagh at Northlight Theatre through April 22. ★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
If Martin McDonagh’s very dark comedy “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is a study in passive-aggressive dominance, and its correlative misery, Northlight Theatre’s current go at it fills that pool of trouble to the drowning brim.
The lifelong combatants in McDonagh’s gritty Irish tale are Mag and Maureen, mother and daughter, occupants of a shabby dwelling (the marvelous creation of designer Todd Rosenthal) wherein Mum spends her days parked in her rocker, in the middle of the parlor, complaining of her aches and pains and making endless niggling demands of compliant Maureen, age 40.
Well embodied here as the dominatrix and the damned are Wendy Robie, ever wheedling and calculating, and Kate Fry, whose Maureen would just like to have a life of her own – and to see her mother dead.
But Maureen has made her own bed. Rage and curse as she might, and does, at Mag’s interminable requirements, she’s still there. Her siblings want nothing to do with the narcissistic old woman, and Maureen hasn’t the heart to consign her to one of those homes for the elderly – not of the wretched sort they could afford.
So they go on day to day, the next looking pretty much like the last, Maureen running the errands and doing the chores and fixing the meals while Mag nags about the lumps in her porridge and scans the horizon for any sign that Maureen might be lured away by a man.
Indeed, such a possibility arises when Pato Dooley, an old friend of Maureen’s, sends a note inviting her to a dance. Mother Mag burns the note. She’s like the goalie on this home rink, so quick she is to deflect a scoring shot. But the message gets through anyway, and Maureen goes to the hooley. Not only does she go, but she buys a new dress for the occasion, then brings Pato home – for the night.
Surely the funniest scene, and the earthiest, comes the next morning when Mag creeps out early from her bedroom for the nasty ritual dumping of her overnight “wee” down the kitchen sink drain – only to espy Pato’s shirt, followed soon by your man himself in his undershirt. And then Maureen in her slip.
Nathan Hosner’s even-tempered Pato injects a disarming factor of rationality into a household that resembles an asylum. Fry’s bereft Maureen is not just bitter but also exhausted, deeply sad and needy. Robie’s haggard Mag, laconic and dour and never content, is the portrait of a woman subsisting in perpetual desperation. If Maureen should ever leave, where is Mag then?
Thus the old woman schemes and interferes and demands. And in her most desperate hour, she prevails, or so it seems. Through the intermediary of his young nephew Ray (the rambunctious and impatient Casey Morris), Pato pours his heart out in a letter to Maureen – whom he has dubbed the Beauty Queen of Leenane – and implores her to go to America with him. The letter is for Maureen’s hands only.
Did I mention that the lad Ray’s leading quality is impatience? He makes, let us say, a bad choice. And the whole business goes off the rails.
Mag has retreated into a state of maniacal self-preservation where her daughter’s humanity is essentially nullified, and Maureen, pushed to the breaking point, experiences exactly that cancellation of hope and life. It’s a violent consummation that Fry and Robie play with a ferocity as truthful as it is chilling.
BJ Jones, Northlight’s artistic director, directs the little cast with a fetching mix of high intensity and lyric naturalism. The pace is unhurried, the warring expansive and incisive. But indulgent as well is the awakening of authentic love in the palpable magnetism between Maureen and this decent man Pato. The real beauty of Fry’s performance lies in Maureen’s brief flowering as a woman in touch with herself, on the verge of realizing herself, on the precipice of final disappointment.