Martin McDonagh's Irish Beauty

"The Yanks do love the Irish," contemplates Maureen Folan near the end of Martin McDonagh's 1996 play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Indeed, nothing proves this fact so much as the remarkable success of McDonagh's play, which, since its debut four years ago, has garnered four Tony awards and helped to secure McDonagh's reputation on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the most promising young playwrights of his generation. Eric Engel's new direction of the play, currently running at the Boston Center for the Arts, proves the mettle of McDonagh's script. Presented by the Sugan Theater Company, Engel's production aptly demonstrates that this hit Broadway play can be brought to the smaller stage without losing any of its sardonic bite or ferocious wit.

Admittedly, the plot line of The Beauty Queen of Leenane is not breathtakingly original. Set in the 1960s in the obscure village of Leenane in the county Connemara, it tells the story of a prototypical dysfunctional family. Maureen Folan is a forty-year-old woman stuck in a dismal job and still living with her mother in a tiny countryside shanty. Mag Folan is a crotchety 70 year old with a urinary infection and a nasty habit of emptying her bedpan in the dish sink. Maureen is offered a route of escape when Pato Dooley, a man of roughly the same age as Maureen, returns from London to visit his home in Leenane and invites Maureen to start a new life with him in America. With some foreshadowing and a few facile twists of plot, the play ends on an inevitably tragic note.

What is innovative about McDonagh's play is the psychological intensity of his characters and their complex relationship to their squalid surroundings. And fortunately for the Sugan Theater's production, Engels clearly understands the significance of these two aspects. The interactions of Mag and Maureen are given vital importance. The mother and daughter face off like two ferrets in a small cage; behind their petty tauntings and quick-paced reportage of insults, one can see how intent each woman is on destroying the other. Susan Zeeman Roger's set-dirty and sparsely furnished, with a rain machine adding a backdrop of perpetually cruddy weather-provides the perfect reflection of the relationship between Mag and Maureen. Just as their mutual goading becomes an self-perpetuating cycle of bitterness, so too is the wretched set part of this cycle; it is both the cause and the effect of such festering enmity.

The role of Mag Folan is a difficult one, for it demands that the actor navigate Mag's hairpin turns of character with absolute authority. Mary Klug triumphs in her role, giving her character a keenly humorous sense of self-awareness. She is both charming and hateful, both pathetically helpless and maliciously cunning. Susanne Nitter as Maureen also handles the diverse nuances of her character with great ease. Alternately imperious and juvenile, she resembles nothing so much as a rebellious teenager encountering a midlife crisis. Next to these harpies, the two supporting male characters appear as all sweetness and light. Derry Woodhouse milks his honeyed brogue for all its worth, making his character Pato an earnest, lovable womanizer. Matthew Ellis as Pato's brother Ray is less successful. Aside from a few outpourings of the perennially amusing Irish swear word "feck!", his dialect and his mannerisms fail to convey the sense of a bored and insolent Irish lad.

This week, the Boston Center for the Arts held a panel to discuss both McDonagh's portrayal of Irish culture in a multi-ethnic world and the reason for the play's tremendous popularity. These issues, while compelling, are certainly not new. From John Millington Synge and his Playboy of the Western World to Frank McCourt and the recent phenomenon of Angela's Ashes, the theme of impoverished rural Ireland (dubbed "The Genre of Irish Squalor" by one critic) is one that never fails to attract an enthusiastic audience, especially an American one.

But whatever cliches of class and setting McDonagh may help perpetuate in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, there is no denying the efficacy of his script and the tremendous complexity of his characters. And with compelling productions like Engel's to affirm the play's quality, the line at the box office will certainly not be slowing anytime soon.


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