The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Martin McDonagh’s pitch black comedy comes to South Coast Rep, and is reviewed by Julio Martinez.

Elers and Byrd inBeauty Queen
Elers and Byrd in
Beauty Queen

Youthful Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has a talent for instilling an undulating vein of comedy within the most angst-ridden, emotionally dysfunctional stage characters. This has led to successful productions of his plays in London and New York. Now in its Southern California premiere at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa is The Beauty Queen of Leenane, McDonagh’s four-character study of the vitriolic relationship between the aged, misanthropic widow Mag (Anne Gee Byrd) and her bitter, 40-year-old spinster daughter Maureen (Heather Ehlers). The play is often as hilarious as it is bitterly cruel. And if director Andrew J. Robinson’s leisurely pacing doesn’t always serve the dialogue to its best effect at South Coast Rep, the cast is first rate.

Set in a remote Irish village, Beauty Queen gives evidence of the poverty-restricted lives of townsfolk who must migrate to such hated lands as England or America to find steady work. Trapped at home, caring for her semi-invalid mother for nearly 20 years, Maureen is a walking study in lamentation; her only recreation is to hurl a constant stream of verbal abuse at the rocking chair-bound Mag.

The old lady gives as good as she gets. And she knows unsavory secrets about Maureen’s past, which she is only too happy to use against her daughter. Ehlers and Byrd exude the aura of two combatants who have been at each other so long, they can’t even generate any much energy into their fights. (At one point, Maureen tiredly proclaims: “You’re old, you’re stupid, and you don’t know what you’re talking about. Shut up and eat your porridge.”)

McDonagh introduces hope into Maureen’s life in the guise of strapping neighbor Pato (Tim Murphy), who has returned from his job in England. Pato gives evidence that he might be a serious suitor to Maureen, whom he has hitherto secretly admired and has dubbed “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.” But all of the play’s characters are flawed, and McDonagh masterfully twists their motivations and dialogue along an emotionally-charged path that offers no security to anyone.

Ehlers is perfect as the socially inadequate Maureen, who is more interested in inflicting pain on her mother than in impressing a potential beau; the characterization achieves a believable balance between toughness and an achingly deep need to be loved. It is matched perfectly by Byrd’s Mag, whose facile mental energy never varies from her primary goal: self-preservation. Murphy is quite effective as the willing but not-to-bright Pato, who can never find an area of comfort within the Maureen/Mag wars. Rob King is properly callow and irreverent as Pato’s younger brother Ray, but never achieves a comfortable conversational flow in his dialogue.

Michael Devine’s almost surrealistic set of an angular stone cottage is a telling environment for the two obtuse ladies living with its walls. Linda Carol Davisson’s earthy costumes do much to communicate the unrelenting poverty that afflicts the characters.

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