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Aisling O'Sullivan Walks in the Shoes of the "Beauty Queen" Who Plays Her Mom

O'Sullivan stars opposite Tony winner Marie Mullen in an American tour of Martin McDonagh's iconic dark comedy.

"It was really sublime," the actress Aisling O'Sullivan remembers of the original production of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane. "It deserved all of those awards. The play, now, I would say, is a modern classic."

Beauty Queen has what O'Sullivan describes as a "mythic" history in Ireland. McDonagh's scalding dark comedy about an unhappy middle-aged woman, whose life is stifled by her domineering elderly mother, not only put him on the entertainment industry's map, but also catapulted the theater company Druid into the cultural conversation.

Two years after its 1996 premiere in Ireland, the work played off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company with its original cast and quickly moved to Broadway, winning Tony Awards for director Garry Hynes and stars Anna Manahan (who played Mags, the mother), Marie Mullen (as Maureen, the daughter), and Tom Murphy (Ray Dooley, a neighbor). The four-member cast was completed by Brían F. O'Byrne, who would also earn a Tony nod for his role.

This mythic history of Beauty Queen radiated in O'Sullivan's mind when she was approached to take on the role of Maureen in Druid's 20th-anniversary production of the work — opposite Mullen who now graduates to the role of the Mag. "It's a real privilege," she said of walking in Mullen's shoes throughout an American tour, which is currently running at Brooklyn Academy of Music — with upcoming stops in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Ann Arbor, Michigan — before the production heads back home to Ireland for a return engagement.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aisling O'Sullivan in the Druid production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh at the Mark Taper Forum.
(© Craig Schwartz Photography)

What is it like to not only step into the shoes of the originator of your role, but to act opposite her in the same play?
It's not been easy, is the honest answer. I saw her performance many years ago now and she blew my head — it was just spectacular to see her in that role in particular. It's been intimidating because I know her so well and I trust her and I love her. It's an honor to be asked to walk in her shoes.

Was Maureen a dream role for you?
I didn't ever think I'd do the part. If I see something that I think is brilliant, which Marie was and the production was, I generally don't feel a need to do it. When I was offered it, I took a while to get my head around why I would do it, and why they were examining it again.

Why were they examining it again, and why did you decide to do it?
I think a major part of that was the twenty-year anniversary this year. It was monumental to Druid. It was unprecedented and it was historical, and kind of mythic in Irish theater. And there's a whole new audience that hasn't seen it. The reason I did it was because I love Marie Mullen and to get to work with her so intimately. I love Martin McDonagh, as well. It was a whole heap of things that weren't about the compulsion to play Maureen.

Top: Anna Manahan as Mag Folan, Brían F. O'Byrne as Pato Dooley, and Marie Mullen as Maureen Folan in the original Broadway production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Above: Marie Mullen as Mag Folan, Aisling O'Sullivan as Maureen Folan, and Marty Rea as Pato Dooley in the 20th-anniversary revival at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
(© Carol Rosegg/Richard Termine)

Did you ever ask Marie for advice on playing Maureen?
I would sometimes. She's so gentle and humble and encouraging. She also, I imagine, was trying to get rid of the memory in her mind of the original Mag. Anna won the Tony as well for her performance. The challenge has been not so much to get rid of the performances of Anna and Marie, but to homage them and not let them possess the performance. It's a tightrope walk. It's been a journey and I think we're closer now.

The run kicked off at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and is now at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater. What are the challenges of playing multiple venues in this manner?
The L.A. theater space was beautiful, but a different challenge to what we had been used to up to that point. The audience was on three sides and was very close, and then there was a section that was far away. It was a strange mix of trying to be so truthful that the people in the front were lulled into the story, and yet not to go so small that the people in the back were not reached. In the theater at BAM, the acoustics are really unbelievable. I think its one of the most beautiful spaces I've ever played.

Your first time acting in New York was in Druid's DruidShakespeare in 2015, and now you're touring the country with this play. Is there an adjustment period?
With DruidShakespeare we had two weeks in New York, and I was fascinated by the whole thing. I'm used to performing to English audience, English culture, and Irish culture. But I'd never stood in front of American culture. I didn't know what your sense of humor was, or how to play to you. It was really fascinating. I learned we're all the same. Certainly in the American audiences, there is impatience with stuff that might not be honest, which I found really energizing and inspiring. I'm looking forward to feeling out a Boston audience, and we're going to Pittsburgh and Ann Arbor, and then to Hong Kong, which is a completely different culture.

Have you seen the poster for the production with you and Marie in the New York subway stations?
[laughs] No. I suppose that might have turned my head a bit when I was younger, but I'm not too excited by that now. But I love the poster. When we were doing the photo shoot, there wasn't a suitable color of shoes for me. They were taking photos of Marie and me separately, so Marie loaned me her shoes. I think it's really hugely symbolic that I'm trying to step into her shoes as well as wear them.

Aisling O'Sullivan and Marie Mullen in the promotional artwork for Druid's The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
(© Matthew Thompson)