A Royal Mess
The strife between the lead characters in Caldwell Theatre's production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane goes way beyond the typical mother-daughter friction. Early in the play, while Maureen Folan (Cary Anne Spear) slams cabinet doors and slings pans around the kitchen of their little cottage, her aged mother, Mag (Virginia Light), continually makes plaintive demands. With a menacing smile pasted on her creased face, she stares blankly ahead, saying things like, "I might have my tea now." Maureen responds with venomous wisecracks -- one in particular criticizing her mother's penchant for pouring a cup of urine down the kitchen sink every morning.
This show's most interesting aspect is its blurring of the line between victim and perpetrator. The audience soon learns that both mother and daughter draw upon deep reservoirs of spite for each other. From where does all this animosity come? I wish I could say. Unfortunately playwright Martin McDonagh has created sketchy and underdeveloped characters that fall well short of their dramatic potential. Maureen and Mag are so one-dimensional, their contrived actions and almost nonexistent motivations hamstring any potential for gripping psychological drama.
When the play first opens, the fortyish Maureen putters around the kitchen of their dreary home atop a muddy hill in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland, while her mother rocks in her chair, immediately invoking Marsha Norman's devastating drama, 'Night Mother. That show also begins with two women whiling away an evening when the daughter announces, "I'm going to kill myself, Mom." Like 'Night Mother, The Beauty Queen of Leenane hints at its brutal ending early in the play, but the latter work's lack of true character development results in a connect-the-dots-style plot.
When Ray Dooley (Liam Christopher O'Brien) drops by to invite Maureen to a party, true nastiness ensues. Her mother tries to hide the invitation from her, but Maureen finds out, runs to town to buy a slinky black dress, and heads off to the party, where she falls in love with Pato (Ned Coulter), Ray's older brother who has been working in England.
This development fits in nicely with Maureen's fantasy in which her mother dies and Prince Charming arrives and sweeps her away right in front of the casket. (With her baggy clothes, scraggly hair, and thin, drawn face, Cary Anne Spear certainly looks like she needs rescuing.) In fact Maureen relishes sharing these fantasies with her mother. With equal malice her mother gleefully intercepts what is probably her daughter's final chance at love. Despite all this venom, we get little or no information about the women's shared past, which is crucial in order to establish the roots of this conflict.
What we get instead is the startling revelation that Maureen had a breakdown twenty years earlier while working as a maid in England and was institutionalized. Problem is, nothing in Maureen's personality indicates anything approaching that degree of mental illness. In the second half of the play, we are asked to take an even larger leap of faith, as an entire scene that had been presented as reality is later revealed to be a severe hallucination. It's as if the news of the breakdown was planted to explain that the hallucination could happen. These arbitrary plot twists feel utterly contrived, like bread crumbs dropped in the forest to lead us to the play's bitter end.
As the protagonist of this mess, Spear faces a nigh-impossible challenge: deliver melodramatic dialogue and actions based upon the flimsiest of motivations. Although it doesn't justify the dementia to come, Spear's monologue about how she ended up in the asylum is probably the most intriguing part of the play, because it's the one piece of information that takes us out of that shabby cottage. Her descriptions of being an outsider in England and the Trinidadian woman who befriended her are touching. Spear also gets some laughs in the scene when Pato spends the night; the next day she brazenly prances about in a black bra and slip, flaunting her sexuality in front of her mother. It's obvious that the sexual encounter has more to do with her power struggle with her mother than it does with the hapless Pato.
Virginia Light also looks the part, sealed in her rocker, slurping her tea and porridge. Her Mag is simultaneously passive, manipulative, and definitely cruel -- but we never learn why she is any of these things. We are never given an opening into her interior life, nor do we know anything about her past. We do know she has two other daughters who hightailed it out of town as soon as they could. Are we supposed to assume she is cruel based upon the simple fact that she is an ailing, old Irish woman? Not good enough. As the putative impetus for Maureen's dysfunction, Mag's cruelty is the cornerstone of the play, yet there's nothing there.
Oddly enough, Liam Christopher O'Brien, whose character is the least emotionally involved of the four, steals the show as Ray. Acting as the delivery boy for his brother's messages, he gets stuck in the cottage on a couple of occasions, waiting for Maureen to show up. His interactions with the old lady are particularly funny. At one point, he bangs his head on the table and strikes several tortured poses out of sheer frustration. O'Brien seems the most comfortable in his part; his confident use of physical gestures and expressions is absolutely convincing.
Raised in England by Irish-born parents, McDonagh got most of the material for the play from his periodic visits to Ireland. His use of diction, cadence, and colloquial expressions reveals his adept flair for the vernacular. The script is thoroughly riddled with Irish dialect, such as "feck" and "shite." The men manage the accent quite well but the actresses do not. When it comes to accents, actors don't necessarily need to fool a native speaker but should at least sound convincing to nonnatives. Maureen and Mag's accents are quite transparent and at times distracting.
Tim Bennett's set adequately depicts the dreary cottage, but the author's choice never to change or even vary the set paralyzes the drama even further. Except when Mag is in her rocking chair (which takes on a double meaning at the end) and Maureen is at her stove, neither character interacts with her surroundings in any meaningful way. A little room off to the side where we could see Maureen alone, for example, might have been an interesting vehicle for getting to know her better. Although this pair has lived a lifetime in one dingy space, that space doesn't seem like a home -- even a dysfunctional one. In the second act, when Pato writes Maureen a letter from England, we find him sitting in the same cottage kitchen; the whistle of a passing train is supposed to transport us to his flat in London. Well, it doesn't. The stage designer could have, at the very least, dropped the curtain to release us even momentarily from the drab kitchen.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane does manage a few moments of dark comedy. It would have been nice to see the script reach some of the dramatic potential that the situation holds -- a reminder that plot does not drive tragedy, character does. The more we have invested in a character, the more his or her tragedy moves us.
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