Marie Mullen and Marty Rea (background) in the Druid production of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, directed by Garry Hynes, at the Mark Taper Forum.
Marie Mullen and Marty Rea (background) in the Druid production of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, directed by Garry Hynes, at the Mark Taper Forum.
(© Stephen Cummiskey)

Marie Mullen won the best actress Tony for the original Broadway production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane as a tortured daughter. Now she has returned almost 20 years later to play the tormentor — her cruel, selfish mother. Her remarkable performance at the Mark Taper Forum, harrowing and yet oddly empathetic, is matched by the rest of this dazzling cast in this hilariously vicious revival of Martin McDonagh's raven-black comedy.

McDonagh's writings (including The Lieutenant of Inishmore) ravage conventions, and Beauty Queen is no exception. An Irish family memory play fused with American Gothic, Tennessee Williams' delusional heroine, shades of Grey Gardens. Big Edie and Little Edie are amateurs compared with the venomous Maureen (Aisling O'Sullivan) and Mag (Mullen). Maureen is Mag's only unmarried daughter and, therefore, the object of her loathing.

They live isolated on a small farm in a tiny town with just each other for company. Maureen resents being at Mag's beck and call while Mag delights in enforcing her daughter's enslavement, turning each request for porridge or chicken broth into a gibe. This cycle of abuse is disrupted by a neighbor, Pato Dooley (Marty Rea), who falls for the virginal Maureen, giving her options that do not include her mother. Like any poisonous snake in peril, Maureen strikes right to the jugular.

McDonagh freshly churns old chestnut genres with dialogue that springs from the actors with veracity. In the opening scene, the two women, who have sucked the life out of each other for years, speak in almost guttural grunts. Though their dialogue is unclear, it sets a rhythm the audience can easily decipher.

Mullen and O'Sullivan are like seasoned chess players. Their physical activity plays off each other beautifully. Mullen scampers about when alone, though acting feeble and frail in a rocking chair while among company. O'Sullivan evolves from a bitter lonely wallflower to a sexually confident siren only to sink back into despair in the second act. It's like a tango, with each allowing the other to steal focus from scene to scene.

As the love-struck Pato, Rea is a charming life saver for the drowning Maureen: cuddly, compassionate, and sexually raw. As his slightly dim brother, Aaron Monaghan is hilariously dopey and excitable. When frustrated, his voice climbs to octaves that only dogs can hear.

Garry Hynes, who won the Tony for directing the Broadway production, has returned to helm this evocative production. She evokes a melancholic mood with the music, lighting, and penetrating performances. The set by Frances O'Connor conjures a prison, while the exposed pipes and industrial feel draw attention to a fire burning stove and its stoker, two essential props to the drama.

An essential theater experience, The Beauty Queen of Leenane concocts two toxic characters who can neither stand the other nor live without them. It is a scouring blow to the love between a mother and child.