Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2003

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a deeply disturbing play. It is an alarming blend of hysterical comedy, grand melodrama, horrifying violence, and the most bleak tragedy. That being said, this production at the Ghent Playhouse is beautifully and powerfully performed and directed, and is well worth seeing during it’s brief two week run.

Set in 1989 in the small village of Leenane (pronounced leh-nan) in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland, the play centers on the life of Maureen Folan (Johnna Murray), a 40-year-old virgin who is the sole caregiver to her 70 year-old mother Mag (Wendy Power Speilmann). Two sisters have escaped into marriage and family life, but Maureen, with a history of mental illness, is trapped in a small, bleak cottage and in an overly dependent, seriously dysfunctional relationship with her mother.

In the course of the play, the Folan cottage is visited by the brothers Ray and Pato Dooley. Many years apart in age, Ray (Heath Hanley) is an irrepressible and irresponsible young man, while Pato (Kevin Wixsom) is a middle-aged construction worker fed up with having to live and work in England in order to earn a living wage. The glimmer of a romance sparks up, then sputters out between Maureen and Pato, with ultimately disastrous results.

The play rocketed playwright Martin McDonagh to fame at age 25 when it opened in the West End in 1996. By 1998 he became the first playwright since William Shakespeare to have four of his plays produced professionally in London in a single season. A school drop-out, McDonagh wrote “Beauty Queen” in just eight days.

Born in London, he has become known as a great Irish playwright in spite of the fact that his knowledge of life in the rural parts of western Ireland about which he writes is based on recollections from summer vacations and the tales told by his Galway-born father. Michael Billington of the Guardian stated that “[McDonagh’s] Ireland is based not on real experience of the place but on an almost postmodern recollection of Irish drama in the last century.” As foreigners, American audiences must be careful to bear this in mind while being romanced by the lilting pseudo-Irish-speak of McDonagh’s characters.

The four actors on stage in Ghent do an admirable job of embracing and embodying this spoken language which may or may not exist in real life. It took me a few minutes to adjust my ears to the rhythms and sounds, but after that I was able to understand every word and was duly impressed by the actors’ abilities to maintain their accents throughout the play. Truly Irish ears might have been appalled, but I was content that everyone on stage sounded the same, which is seldom the case when American’s attempt any kind of foreign accent.

The Columbia Civic Players consistently surprise me with the variety of their theatrical offerings. Following two successful productions of standard community theatre fare – a Neil Simon comedy and a Kander and Ebb revue – they pull this disturbing Irish melo-dram-edy out of the hat and give it just as fine a production as the more predictable shows. Kudos to the artistic management of the CCP for selecting such a diverse season and for trusting Director Paul Murphy in his choice of this play.

I always enjoy seeing Johnna Murray on stage, and she is perfect in the pivotal role of Maureen. Murray is a tall, spare woman who can look quite lovely or quite plain. She is an actress who conveys character with all the tools at her disposal – face, body, and voice. During the first act of the play she became increasingly more beautiful, and then faded back into faceless defeat by the end of the play.

Speilmann does such a fine job as the elderly, crochety Mag that you have to look hard to catch the very occasional glimmer of the actress true youth and energy. I loved the ritual she had developed for when Mag ate, the continual tasting and grimacing and wiping her mouth on her sleeve. Speilmann’s portrayal makes Maureen’s situation immediately sympathetic to the audience, although she is not the only or the ultimate victim in this relationship.

It is impossible not to like the two gentlemen in this production. Hanley could perhaps play his role a little darker, but in his rendition Ray is a delightfully non-threatening “bad boy.” And Wixsom is heartbreakingly real as Pato. I especially enjoyed his monologue at the opening of Act II. Both actors are newcomers to the Ghent stage, and I hope we see more of them soon.

Murphy has also designed the delightful little set for this show. It conveys the helpless claustrophobia of rural life that Martha Stewart wanna-bes completely overlook in their country chic cottages. There are a lot of working parts of this set – running water, fire in the fireplace, an electric kettle – and on opening night all of these mechanics went off without a hitch.

Joanne Maurer, the costume sorceress of Columbia County, has pulled another perfect set of costumes out of her hat. Maureen makes several quick changes, all of which are handled flawlessly. The other three characters wear their signature outfits throughout.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is not a show for children. I have been quite content to bring my younger son, now 14, to many shows billed as “adult fare” but I would not want him to see this play. Certainly he can witness more sex and violence in an afternoon of cartoons on TV, but this is no cartoon. The characters in this play are not dealing with the large black and white issues of saving the universe from marauding aliens, but with the love, hate, passion, and insanity that lies very close to the surface in all of us.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is being performed by the Columbia Civic Players at the Ghent Playhouse on March 21-23 and 28-30. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. Shows begin at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 pm on Sundays. Tickets are $12 for evening performances and $11 for matinees, and students and seniors get a $1 discount.

The Ghent Playhouse is located just off of Rt. 66 on Town Hall Road, near the firehouse, in Ghent, New York. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-6264.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003

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