The mercurial voice of Karel K. Wright croons, teases, bellows, and begs to epic effect in Jewel Theatre’s lurid sitcom production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane. If only Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh had given her part as the controlling matriarch more inspiring lines to explore.
McDonagh (recently famous as the writer/director of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) earned his rock star reputation with theatrical trilogies set in the brooding backwaters of an Emerald Isle that may or may not have existed somewhere in the 1930s. Set in the perpetual rain and gloom of Ireland’s west coast, Beauty Queen portrays the richly toxic bond of demanding mother Mag (Wright) and her spinster daughter Maureen (Julie James), trapped in a ceili dance of codependency. The emotional pressure cooker finds some release through Pato Dooley (Andrew Davids), a handsome neighbor who meets Maureen at a party and affords her one night of escape from matriarchal hell. Pato’s slacker brother Ray (a hilarious Travis Rynders) stops by the cottage from time to time out of sheer boredom. The quartet pushes against numbing isolation with results the playwright hopes will shock and amuse.
And the play does both—sometimes to deliciously malevolent effect. A cartoon of a frumpy manipulating hag, Wright commands the stage. She weedles, whines, and pouts as she pushes her careworn daughter to fetch her tea, fix her porridge, turn up the radio, and stoke the fire of their drab lives. Wright’s timing is as razor-sharp as her vocal range, and when the director allows, she can raise the rafters, as well as cajole with teatime sweetness.
Mother Mag is a major pain in the ass, and no one feels it as sharply as her daughter. The light went out long ago in Maureen’s dreams for a future of her own, as her mother continuously reminds her. So when Pato comes home with her after a party, we know how much just one night of romance can mean.
Darkening the ray of hope represented by Pato, and the occasional jolt of youthful energy represented by Ray, is the relentless tide of the harrowing mother/daughter struggle. It is a game, or a dance, or a prizefight they’ve waged for decades. And from the very start, we can see where it will all lead. For some viewers, that will make Queen too predictable and obvious, the work of an inexperienced playwright in his mid-twenties. I didn’t mind seeing where it was going. I just wished for tighter scenes, filled with enough dynamic tension to inspire an agonizing climax. And it’s hard to tell whether this was the fault of the play, the empty spaces of which eroded too much emotional energy, or the pacing of director Susan Myer Silton.
Opening night audience had difficulty with some of the dialogue, thanks to the use of broad Irish accents throughout the performance. The chilling exchanges between Wright and James never landed with quite the raw, emotional fireworks that the set-up—and finale—required. It might have been otherwise with different casting. McDonagh has given us two endings to this play, and while that might work in Pinter, Albee, and Caryl Churchill, here it neutralized the climax.
But the sight of hyperactive Travis Rynders going ballistic over the loss of a favorite childhood ball was worth the entire evening. And pacing will surely quicken as the show fine tunes its coming performances. Choice little moments, the unsentimental portrait of an Ireland down on its luck, and the ambidextrous artistry of Wright’s vocal timing, still manage to make The Beauty Queen of Leenane a rewarding evening of theater.
‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ by Martin McDonagh runs at the Colligan Theater through Sept. 30. jeweltheatre.net.