When The Beauty Queen of Leenane first premiered with Galway’s Druid Theatre in 1996, it marked its author, Martin McDonagh (then just shy of age 26) as an exhilarating new voice in Celtic drama. The story of lonely 40-year-old spinster Maureen Folan and her hypochondriacal and controlling mother, Mag, cut like a chainsaw through any lingering misty-eyed romanticism Americans in particular might have had about the auld sod. McDonagh’s play (along with his subsequent work for stage and screen, up to and including 2022’s multiple Oscar nominee The Banshees of Inisherin) seemed to relish in exposing the grim and often-petty grievances of rural Irish life.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Through 9/17: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 and 7:30 PM; Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, threecrowstheatre.com, pay what you can
Unlike his fellow Irish dramatist Brian Friel’s fictional Ballybeg, McDonagh’s Leenane is a real town in Connemara. As one of the characters in Beauty Queen laments, “You can’t kick a cow in Leenane without some bastard holding a grudge twenty year.” It’s a more earthy way of expressing what Irish American playwright Eugene O’Neill once wrote in A Moon for the Misbegotten: “There is no present or future—only the past, happening over and over again—now.”
Daniel Sappington’s production for Three Crows Theatre, featuring a sturdy quartet of actors, somehow didn’t grab me as much as the play did on first viewing 24 years ago. And I think that’s down to how much McDonagh’s unvarnished black humor and willingness to show the cruelty of humans in close quarters has become more familiar since Beauty Queen first appeared. In Banshees, he ties in the sudden acrimony between two friends on a remote Irish isle to the bloodshed of the civil war on the Irish mainland.
No such political underpinnings prop up Beauty Queen, where Selena Lopez’s Maureen is at the beck and call of Judith Laughlin’s Mag on a farmhouse up a steep hill. (The fact that Maureen’s two sisters stay away from Leenane and their mother tells us something about the toll of being in the toxic orbit of both.) The return of laborer Pato Dooley (Nathaniel Negrón) from London sparks a brief hope of romance and escape for Maureen, whose time as a cleaner in England has left lingering psychological scars exploited by her mother. Pato’s callow younger brother, Ray (Brandon Beach), nurses his grudge against Maureen for taking away a ball from him many years earlier, and that grudge plays out with startling consequences.
If you’ve never seen Beauty Queen, this production offers a solid introduction, even if the stakes feel somewhat underplayed at times. The Folan cottage, as designed by Spencer Donovan, features walls of interwoven twine, suggesting the webs of lies and tangled family obligations that bring down the household in the end. If the impact feels blunted for me by exposure to McDonagh’s subsequent work, that’s probably a testament to how much his vision has deepened while also remaining true to his worldview, which often manages to be pitiless and poignant.