Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Theatre Pro Rata
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule


Sally Wingert and Amber Bjork
Photo by Charles Gorrill
Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, currently presented by Theatre Pro Rata at Park Square Theatre's Andy Boss Thrust Stage, is twenty years old this year, but it has the timelessness of a classic drama. The struggle between a parent and child, lives torn between freedom and filial responsibility, and the blurring between truth and long-lived-with lies are as potent today as they were to the ancient Greeks. The story unfolds with striking simplicity and a stunning force that grabs the audience by both wits and guts, while Theatre Pro Rata's cast and production is the equal of McDonagh's wonderful text.

The play takes place in the present, in the isolated village of Leenane in western Ireland where seventy-year-old Mag and her forty-year-old daughter Maureen inhabit a small cottage. Mag is a whining hypochondriac whose life has been reduced to blankly waiting for the television news and using her alleged ailments as a club with which to control Maureen. Maureen is a virgin, having only kissed two men in her life ("Two too many," barks Mag). She dreams of escaping her life of loneliness and servitude, yet it seems that Maureen is trapped as much out of having no idea how to leave, or where she might go, as out of daughterly duty. Mag and Maureen's relationship has devolved into a cycle of mutual emotional abuse, with hints of physical abuse as well.

A visit from Ray, a young man in the village, sets events in motion that bring matters to a boil. Ray invites Mag and Maureen to a party being given as a farewell for American relatives who have been visiting. The invitation is being extended on behalf of Pato, Ray's older brother and Maureen's contemporary. Like many of their generation, Pato has left Ireland to find work in England, but he will be back for the party. Maureen overcomes Mag's attempt to keep her away from the party and winds up bringing Pato back to their cottage that evening. Though in their younger days he never approached her, Pato admits that to him Maureen was always the beauty queen of Leenane and there is a sense that perhaps Maureen's dreams of a different life may be realized.

As expected, Pato returns to London, but the prospect of a future with him and of leaving behind her miserable life inflames Maureen's thoughts, just as the fear of abandonment terrifies Mag. Lies and deceit continue to fuel war between them, escalating with increasing cruelty. Finally, another visit from Ray to the cottage reveals truths that bring the play to its wrenching conclusion.

The play is agonizingly sad, yet wonderfully funny. The humor comes from playwright McDonagh's sharp sense of the humor imbedded in human nature, and of the barbed wit for which Irish self-expression is noted. Throughout the first act the comedy dominates, in spite of the misery laid out before us. Perhaps, it feels, the play falls within the bounds of "black comedy." In the second act, however, the comedy ebbs as the sadness swells into tragedy. McDonagh seems to suggest that humor can sustain us through a life of despair, but it cannot change the outcome.

The cast of four are all outstanding, disappearing into the characters they play. Foremost is Sally Wingert as Mags, giving another peerless performance. She has the voice, the movement, the posture of the withered away Mags down to a tee. Wingert draws Mag's responses to Maureen's quips from a simple "oh" to a deranged "oooowwwwwww," stretching the word into at least five syllables, and giving the impression it may be the last sound she ever utters. Her manner of asking for a cup of tea or bowl of porridge—mind that there not be any lumps—is whining and intrusive, yet also conveys a childlike helplessness that cannot be denied. When left to her own devices, her real wickedness becomes evident, the drive that places her own miserable survival above any interest in Maureen's happiness.

Great as Wingert is, she is well matched by her company. Amber Bjork is sublime as Maureen, struggling to accept the hand life has dealt her, and finding it unbearable. When she finds a glimmer of hope, through Pato's sudden appearance and declarations of his feelings for her, she becomes as anxious and eager as a child waiting up to see if Santa Claus is real or not. Her final desperate actions exude desire—not necessarily a desire for Pato, but for life—that has overwhelmed her. Bjork is attractive enough for Pato's sobriquet, the beauty queen of Leenane, to feel sincere, while showing the wear and tear that unhappiness has taken on her.

Caught between Mag and Maureen's rancor, Grant Henderson as Pato conveys tenderness that could only be heaven sent. Henderson's Pato is believably shy and kindhearted, and also projects disappointment with his own life. He allows us to believe in the possibility of a genuine bond lifting both Pato and Maureen out of their loneliness. Taylor Evans is terrific as Ray, broadcasting his scorn for everything, awash in shallow grievances and afflicted with restless energy. He is the face of youth who delivers news that pushes his elders closer to the edge, which he does with abject indifference.

Carin Bratlie Wethern directs the production with a magnifying glass on the whirlpool of emotions that embroil Maureen and Mag, so that even the most tedious of exchanges reveal decades of pained co-dependency. Adding Ray's cynicism and Pato's gentility to the mix, Wethern casts a spell that keeps us galvanized by these four aimless souls. Andrea Heilman's set has a cutaway corner of the cottage in each corner of the Boss Thrust Stage's corners, barely there, but enough glimpse of aged stone and plaster to suggest the entire, claustrophobic place. All other tech credits measure up to the high caliber of the production.

This is the rare play in which it is very difficult to like either of the main characters—Maureen and Mag—as we are made fully aware of the bitterness and scorn that has been the roadmap of their lives, yet we are drawn to watch them, and even to care about what happens to them. This is a testament to the plain-spoken eloquence of McDonagh's script, the vision of Wethern's direction, and the artistry of all four performances.

Theatre Pro Rata's The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the first production of 2016 that shouldn't be missed.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a Theatre Pro Rata production, continues at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage through January 24, 2016, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 - $60.00. $2.00 discount for Minnesota Fringe button holders and Minnesota Public Radio members. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to theatreprorata.org

Writer: Martin McDonagh; Director and Producer: Carin Bratlie Wethern; Scenic Design: Andrea Heilman; Costume Design: Samantha Kuhn Staneart; Lighting Design: Julia Carlis; Sound Design: Jake Davis; Prop Design: Amy Pirkl; Technical Director: John Lutz; Stage Manager: Clara Costello;

Cast: Amber Bjork (Maureen), Taylor Evans (Ray), Grant Henderson (Pato), Sally Wingert (Mag)


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