Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through April 22
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Martin McDonagh’s 1996 “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” the first play in his Leenane Trilogy (“A Skull in Connemara,” “The Lonesome West”), is almost always described as “darkly comic,” but I find it so deeply depressing that the humor escapes me. This is especially true of Northlight Theatre’s revival directed by BJ Jones, not because the central characters are more monstrous than usual but because they seem more vulnerable.
Set in a shabby cottage up a rocky hill in a small town on the desolate west coast of Ireland, “Beauty Queen” is about a mother and daughter locked in the most toxic relationship ever. Seventy-year-old Mag Folan spends her days wrapped in a dingy bathrobe sitting in her rocking chair in front of the telly tormenting her 40-year-old spinster caregiver Maureen Folan in myriad ways ranging from ordering her to make Complan (a powdered energy beverage) and porridge to endlessly complaining about trivia like the best kind of biscuits. Maureen, desperate to escape and add some romance in her soul-deadening daily life, taunts her mother back, refusing to obey the old woman’s every whim and flaunting it when neighbor Pato Dooley comes home with her after a party and stays the night.
The conflict escalates to say the least, and in the hands of consummate actors Wendy Robie and Kate Fry, these two women are scary-sad in their mutual destructiveness. Robie’s fragile Mag retains a hint of the beauty she must have been, making her selfishness, nastiness, and determination to ruin any chance of happiness for Maureen all the more vicious and insidious. She fears she’ll be put in a home for the elderly, so the way she feigns senility when it suits her conniving is particularly unnerving.
Fry’s abused Maureen, who lacks more in confidence than in looks, does a slow burn, simmering with resentment and slyly eeking out her revenge, until her sadistic fury is unleashed thanks to a fatal mistake on Mag’s part. Fry also takes us inside Maureen’s mind as this woman who once was institutionalized for a mental breakdown slowly realizes that things are not as she believes them to be.
The terrible irony is that they could have been the way Maureen wanted were it not for Mag’s meddling. Though he’s sometimes portrayed as more casual, Nathan Hosner’s Pato is a decent man who is sincerely interested in Maureen and means it when he calls her by the play’s title, though she has trouble believing him and thinks he’s mocking her. At a dead end in a town where there are no jobs, he’s been working in London but hates it, and the letter he writes her about his plan to move to Boston is sweet in its simplicity.
Pato’s younger brother Ray is almost the opposite, and Casey Morris brings an excess of nervous energy to this hyper, mean-spirited youth who can hold a grudge for decades and is so bored he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He has no respect for Mag, who he insults and calls a crazy old woman, and even less for Maureen, who he still hates for taking a ball of his years ago. His interaction with them is supposed to be funny, at least at times, but he’s unpleasantly off-putting in my book.
Todd Rosenthal’s masterful scenic design features both a dirty semi-modern stove and an older wood-burning one (for heat, I think) in a room that would feel more claustrophobic if it weren’t for the open expanse above it, which seems to double as a hill and the place where Pato works with the help of JR Lederle’s lighting. Theresa Ham’s costumes define the characters nicely, and the way a little black dress transforms Fry’s Maureen is revealing. Andre Pluess’ sound design becomes ominous when needed.
“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is one of the highlights of contemporary Irish drama, even if I do find it almost unbearable. Or maybe my response is a sign of just how good it is. Anyway, there’s no doubt that Robie and Fry make Northlight’s production worth seeing.