Dolores Kenan, Janet Dunson, and David Kellerin The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Dolores Kenan, Janet Dunson, and David Keller
in The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Mag Folan and her daughter Maureen live a stifling and maddening existence, tucked away in a small house with only one another for company in a small town called Leenane in the hills of Western Ireland. If your program didn't say it was 1989 and if there wasn't a television in the corner of the Folan's living room, you might think at first that Martin McDonagh's play was unfolding 100 years earlier: His Ireland is a country plagued by British economic oppression and cultural dominance, a solitary agrarian society where any people with sense are leaving to go to America. On the home front, Maureen goes out to tend the chickens while Mag rocks in her rocking chair.

But The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which won a Tony for McDonagh in 1998 and is now being given an assured, heartfelt presentation by Brooklyn's Gallery Players, is only old fashioned when it wants to be. Though Irish drama has a long, proud history of black comedies about dysfunctional families, the characters in Beauty Queen speak explicitly of sex and suffer truly terrifying violence of a type that Synge or O'Casey would never have staged -- or been allowed to stage.

In some ways, Maureen is nothing more than a long-suffering country woman who has been kicked around by the late 20th century. In her youth, it seems, she traveled to England to work and it did not go well -- the details of that extended visit are revealed by McDonagh in a typically fraught moment. Now she's 40, a virgin, and basically living as maidservant to her nitpicking old hag of a mother. These two torture each other in a thousand tiny ways, Maureen forcing Mag to drink her noxious Complan (a nutritional drink) and Mag ordering Maureen to turn the radio volume up, then down, then up again.

Their sad little balance of power is upset midway through Act I by the arrival of Pato Dooley, an old friend who has been working in England and has now come back for a weekend party. Love blooms, in a way, between him and Maureen -- and this makes Mag very, very unhappy. As Act II unfolds, McDonagh unveils the tragic results of that unhappiness with a sure hand, and it's not till the play's last moments that we can be sure who among the play's four characters will make it through safely. (Pato's oblivious, jittery younger brother Ray is also kicking around.)

Not everything about this Gallery Players version, directed by Bradley Campbell on a home-as-prison set by Todd M. Reemtsma, is note perfect. The old pitfall of stage dialects is certainly a problem here, and Campbell's pacing is at times too slow, allowing at least one crucial scene to be robbed of much of its impact. But all four of the actors show real strength in their difficult roles.

Janet Dunson as Maureen performs admirably, and she has the toughest job if only because her character is in the toughest situation; Mag needles Maureen while the latter is so clearly mourning the life she might have led, and though their dialogue initially strikes the audience as bitterly funny, it soon comes to seem awfully sad. Dolores Kenan plays the monstrous older woman as the perfect inverse of an affectionate grandmother, demanding endless attention and seeming to say "you're not worth a damn" with every sharp glance and pointed sigh. David Keller as Pato Dooley is touchingly awkward and charming, a fitting Mr. Right for the frustrated Maureen. As Pato's brother Ray, Garry Burgoyne tends to overplay the character's nervous energy.

One other criticism: Todd M. Reemtsma designed a very fine interior set but then stuck it to one side of the stage and filled the other side with a barely used exterior set. If the goal was to increase the claustrophobic feel of the Folan house, fair enough; but couldn't the same result have been achieved without cheating the performers of the use of half the stage space?

Still, in most important respects, this Beauty Queen is a success. There is an air of earnestness and raw emotion about Campbell's cast that lends itself well to the text, which seems so natural that one doesn't realize until the play's over what an artful and meticulous writer McDonagh is, planting details like seedlings in each scene and allowing them to bloom ferociously later on.

It's hard to say much about the second act of a play that counts so much for its effect on a series of surprises. To simply note that "all is not as it seems" in the world of Martin McDonagh's Beauty Queen is to apply a cheap cliché to a play that deserves better. Perhaps it's best just to say, "See it!"