Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane is somewhat difficult to “like.” It takes place in a rundown house in a rundown county of Ireland, and is populated by (mostly) unlikable people, centered on a bitter woman and her 70-year-old, equally embittered, selfish mother. One of the other two characters is a self-centered, impatient and truculent young man who dreams of the same escape to England that has already failed for his brother (as well as the central character). However, Northlight Theatre artistic director BJ Jones has directed this with an eye toward milking this dark comedy for all of the humor it contains, and it does contain a lot.
Even in the most disquieting of scenes, he is not averse to creating a comic pause. The play revolves around the turbulent relationship between Maureen Folan (Kate Fry) and her mother Mag (Wendy Robie). It’s clear from the beginning that these women have little love remaining for each other, if indeed they ever had any. Mag is so difficult to handle that Maureen’s two sisters have washed their hands of her.
The script affords Maureen a love interest in the guise of Pato Dooley (a sweet, empathic Nathan Hosner), who sends a message through his younger brother Ray (a petulant Casey Morris) that invites Maureen to come to a going-away party he’s throwing for a group of “Yanks.” To both of their surprise, the two people hit it off almost immediately and end up back in Maureen’s room. Whether anything can last with Mag around, though, is problematic.
The acting is particularly strong, especially the two leads. Fry’s Maureen is a severely put-upon daughter, responding spitefully to each one of her mother’s demands and ignoring her as much as possible… which isn’t much with an old woman who, out of her own spite, dumps her chamberpot into the kitchen sink each morning without even rinsing it out. Robie is equally abrasive as Mag, turning egotistical nastiness into an art form. And it would be easy to root for her failure except that Maureen is not any better as a human being.
Nonetheless, for all of this, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, in Northlight’s latest production, is a remarkable and surprising experience. With top-notch acting, very funny direction, and a provocative script by McDonagh (recently nominated for an Oscar for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, MO), it is a dynamite way to spend an evening.