If you want to really insult a woman, tell her that she's turning into her mother. Sensationalist Irish playwright Martin McDonagh writes of just such a tragic metamorphosis in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, his first big hit, which is now being revived at BAM by Druid, the company that produced the original in 1996. Tony Award-winning director Garry Hynes is back to helm the revival, as is actress Marie Mullen, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Maureen in the 1998 Broadway run. This time, Mullen is playing Maureen's mom, in a casting choice as cruelly resonant as McDonagh's tale, which still produces the intended gasps 20 years on.
Maureen Folan (Aisling O'Sullivan) is a 40-year-old virgin living with her elderly mother, Mag (Mullen), in an old cottage in rural Ireland. Mag spends most of the day sitting in her rocking chair, ordering Maureen to serve her cookies and Complan (a powdered drink). Maureen sees herself rapidly becoming an old maid, but an invitation to a party for newly returned London transplant Pato Dooley (a cartoonishly adorable Marty Rea) might just be her ticket out of Grey Gardens. That is, if she can get the invitation: Pato's brother, Ray (the hilariously prickly Aaron Monaghan), leaves a message with Mag, who for a number of reasons isn't so likely to pass it on. Maureen is left to decide if mom is worth sacrificing on the altar of her fading dreams.
Mullen gives an inscrutable and highly realistic performance as Mag: We're never sure when her senility is sincere or feigned. Similarly, she has all the outward trappings of a sweet old woman, but when pushed, she knows how to bare her fangs. Yet even after she reveals her nastiness, we still feel protective of her, a testament to Mullen's convincing and sympathetic performance.
All sighs of exasperation, O'Sullivan plays Maureen like a woman who thinks of herself as the dutiful daughter, whose martyrdom rivals that of the religious icons strewn about the house. But an innocent comment is liable to send her into a tailspin of insecurity. O'Sullivan plays her cards close to her chest, so her unraveling comes as a much greater surprise. Together, Mag and Maureen make a perfect picture of mother-daughter codependence.
Hynes directs the play with special attention to the relationships between characters: Even though they never appear onstage together, we understand intrinsically that Ray is the put-upon younger brother of the golden child of the Dooley clan. Maureen's sisters are only mentioned in passing, but we suspect that there is a good reason Maureen is living in this dingy old house while they have moved on.
Set designer Francis O'Connor (who designed the set for the original) creates Maureen and Mag's cave-like habitat with extraordinary detail: The last remnants of a once-bright tile pattern fade into obscurity around the kitchen. Electrical wires form a web across the damp-looking concrete, appearing to be a relatively new addition to a room that will never be free from its musty smell (all this without the benefit of olfactory design). James F. Ingalls creates the moody interior lighting, while sound designer Greg Clarke haunts the space with the crackle of an old radio: The Carpenters' cheerfully jaunty "Top of the World" plays during the most gruesome scene, a particularly ironic touch.
Critics have accused McDonagh of writing shallow plays that value black comedy and shock over all else, but Beauty Queen has some surprisingly astute things to say about the gulf between desire and responsibility, especially as it pertains to the immigrant experience. "When it's there I am, it's here I wish I was," Irish Londoner Pato admits to Maureen. "But when it's here I am…it isn't there I want to be, of course not. But I know it isn't here I want to be either." The big city is just a place to work, but the small town where everyone knows your business is no place to live.
Twenty-one years on, The Beauty Queen of Leenane still feels on the cutting edge of the conversation: So much of our contemporary mythology around success is about not throwing away our shot, but McDonagh incisively asks, "What if someone is standing in front of the gun? Would you still shoot?"