note: entire contents copyright 2000 By Alan W. Petrucelli
For a play so mired in grit and grime, despair and death, there are many beautiful moments in "The Beauty Queen of Leenane". There's the tender post-lovemaking glow in which Maureen basks, the morning after losing her virginity to the man she loves. There's the letter Pato writes, and reads at the beginning of Act Two, in which he confesses his feelings for Maureen...and his desire for her to leave the filth and grime her small Irish village and join him in a new life in Boston. And there's Maureen's glory at the possibility of such a new beginning...which ultimately results in tragedy.
When "Beauty Queen" was presented off-Broadway in 1998, a new voice was heard in America: that of Irish import Martin McDonagh, whose look at a troubled mother-daughter relationship was so critically-acclaimed there were near-riots for tickets. So when the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater announced the news that legendary actress Julie Harris was going to star in the show as W.H.A.T.'s season opener, the demand for tickets began weeks before the box-office opened.
Was it worth it?
Harris is brilliant as Mag Folan, the nasty nag who, when not tormenting her daughter Maureen, is emptying her chamber pot into the kitchen sink, sitting catatonic in front of the television set and whining about how lumpy her meals (and life) are. Harris is not the lumpy (read: big and ugly and fat) actress that Anna Manahan, the woman who played the role in New York is, so some of the potency and symbolism is diluted here. Not to worry. Harris makes up for it by illuminating the wrier, yet still evil, side of her character, chuckling and sighing and moaning and mumbling---even drooling---under her foul breath; so leering are her actions that, at times, her relationship with her daughter seems incestuous.
The major problems with the show lie with the playwright. He asks us to work hard from the very first scene---the Irish accents are so thick they are almost indecipherable, forcing audiences used to laugh tracks to really LISTEN. And his prose is sheer poetry, brilliantly capturing everyday conversation even when it's ugly and obscene. But McDonagh has written a work that, though immediately gratifying, is completely calculating and ultimately empty.
McDonagh doesn't establish the background for Mag's terminal maliciousness. What makes her so ugly? The suggestions for her psychological trouble are here, but the follow-up is sorely missing. What then emerges is not a great play, but a soap opera that's about the young and old and restless, characters of another world, brilliantly acted, superbly directly yet, ultimately, as fulfilling as daytime fare.
The other problems with the show are director Jeff Zinn's choices to greatly underplay two crucial scenes.
The first: The scene in which Maureen, realizing her mother has burnt a letter from Pato, tortures her by pouring hot cooking oil on her mother's already scalded hand. This is an important scene, one in which 20 years of hate and resentment have surfaced, as fluid and hurtful as the oil itself. Crocker empties cold oil into a skillet and immediately pours it on Mum. Harris screams. More oil. More screams. But the scene doesn't ring true because there is no reality behind the gesture. (In the recent Trinity Rep production of the play, Maureen forces her mother's hand against a working stove.)
The second: the scene in which Maureen murders her mother. Perhaps to soften the horror or in deference to Harris' age and fragility, Zinn does not show the savage beating. And so the need to hate and understand is so ambiguous the potency is diminished. (In the Trinity Rep production, this scene was so brutal many in the audience audibly winced.)
Does this mean "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" is unwatchable? No. It demands to be seen---if you can get a ticket---because of the poetic prose, the disturbing humor (Maureen, complaining of having kissed only two men in her life, is met with her mother's sneer and "That's two too many") and solid acting. Kim Crocker is marvelous to watch as the entrapped and enraged Maureen, though her own beauty gets in the way of here character; even with her mother's constant berating, it's hard to believe such a lovely woman has become such a victim that she's never found physical love.
Stephen Russell is eminently watchable as Pato, while Colin Hamell, as Pato's brother Ray, gets most of the laughs playing off the relentless Mag. Kudos also to Dan Joy's stunning set and Christopher Ostrom's luminous lighting.
"The Beauty Queen of Leenane" is important because of its cast, but as an exploration of the human heart and condition, it offers as much as a beauty contest.
"The Beauty Queen of Leenane" will be presented Wednesday through Sunday at 8 p.m., with some 2 p.m. Sunday matinees, through June 25, at Tickets: $18. For more information, call (508) 349-6835.