The latest from Shattered Globe Theatre is a revival in two respects. First, it gives us a new look at Martin McDonagh’s 1996 hit, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Second, it’s the first show from Shattered Globe since what incoming artistic director Roger Smart calls the company’s “brief flirtation with the Grim Reaper.”
Last September that dalliance looked damn close to becoming permanent. After 18 seasons of solid storefront realism, Shattered Globe was too broke to afford a planned move into the Theater Wit complex on Belmont. The board of directors voted to call it quits.
But this is Chicago. Since when did a theater troupe here ever let a little thing like penury keep it down? Before the year was out, the board had reversed its decision and Shattered Globe was clawing its way back to life. According to a recent Chicago Tribune story, you can thank a dedicated ensemble, patient funders, and Smart, whose plans include a departure from the America-centric programming and docudrama aesthetics of the past.
It remains to be seen whether Smart can hold the Globe together, but you’ve got to root for a company that, rather than mark its resurrection with something hopeful or uplifting, puts on a play in which an old lady gets scalded with hot oil and stabbed in the head with a poker.
The locales of McDonagh’s plays have turned nonspecific of late—The Pillowman (2003) takes place in some vague dystopia and, despite its title, A Behanding in Spokane (2010) unfolds in an anonymous American small town. But the works with which he deservedly made his name are marked by a powerful sense of place. Set in the bleak, wild west of Ireland—the London-born playwright’s ancestral home—his brutally violent, bitterly funny earlier scripts seem to have sprung directly from the landscape itself.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is McDonagh’s riveting first play and also the first installment in a trilogy concerned with the nasty citizens of the title town, a place where—as the beleaguered parish priest puts it in the third piece of the trilogy, The Lonesome West—”it seems like God has no jurisdiction.” In Leenane, as in most tiny communities, everybody’s private business is common knowledge. “You can’t kick a cow,” says one citizen, “without some bastard holding a grudge 20 year.” In Shattered Globe’s Beauty Queen, the presence of prying, hostile eyes is registered by a bank of grimy windows running along the back wall of Amy Chisman’s rural cottage set.
The cottage is no refuge from hostility, though. McDonagh’s overarching theme is how a family destroys itself from within. In Beauty Queen the dismantling is achieved through a kind of symbiotic rancor shared by a spectacularly uncuddly mother-and-daughter pair—Mag Folan, a manipulative old crone reeking of piss thanks to an everlasting urinary tract infection, and her embittered spinster daughter, Maureen, condemned to the thankless job of taking care of a woman she doesn’t care for.
The lonely, invective-filled monotony of their days is interrupted by the return of local boy Pato Dooley (affable, luggish Joseph Wiens), a childhood acquaintance of Maureen’s who’s been abroad searching for work. After the two reconnect at a party, Maureen brings Pato home, where, in scenes of surprising tenderness—a rare case among writers of black comedies, McDonagh never withholds sympathy from his characters—Maureen fastens on him as her last chance for happiness.
But Pato is a danger to Mag, who fears being left with no one to tend her. When he returns to his job in England and sends Maureen a letter proposing that she run away to join him, Mag gets hold of it first and promptly burns it. Maureen puzzles out this interference—too late to fix it, naturally. What happens next melds the terrible inevitability of Greek tragedy with the violent excesses of the Jacobean kind. In other words, out comes the poker.
Steve Scott’s staging captures the script’s comedy and Gaelic rhythms while competently navigating the plot’s twists and reversals. The performances, though, rarely rise above the level of good journeyman work. Longtime Shattered Globe ensemble members Linda Reiter and Eileen Niccolai would do well to adopt each other’s dominant characteristics. As Mag, Reiter barks and domineers convincingly but fails to show the senile baby inside the harridan. Niccolai, meanwhile, conveys Maureen’s sadness and isolation but very little of the ferocity that would drive a woman to douse her own mother with boiling oil. Consequently, the play’s scenes of violence never seem to go far enough.
Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write about a McDonagh play.