Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Shakespeare & Company

Also see Zander's review of Hello, Dolly!

Elizabeth Aspenlieder, David Sedgwick, Tina Packer
Photo by Enrico Spada
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is such a heart-wrenching, difficult play; all credit, then, to a quartet of actors who manage, at times, to find rays of humanity within Shakespeare & Company's bleak yet simultaneously superb production of Martin McDonagh's play. It continues at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theater in Lenox, Massachusetts through September 15th.

It has been said that McDonagh wrote the script in a few weeks—hard to fathom. The time is early 1990s and the setting is a rundown cottage in a small town called Leenane, situated on the west coast of Ireland in County Galway. As designed by Patrick Brennan, literally everything looks like it is falling apart: the kitchen stove, rocking chair ... Yet, the smiling Kennedy brothers Jack and Bobby shine in a black and white photo which looks out from a shelf.

Maureen (Elizabeth Aspenlieder), 40, has been taking care of her bitter, unlikable mother Mag Folan (Tina Packer), 70, for two decades. Mag has health issues but they do not seem dominant. She is intent upon making life miserable for her daughter. Mag is, no doubt, afraid—of her future, of losing Maureen, who has been figuratively chained both to her mother and to this nearly uninhabitable place. Maureen, a virgin, longs to free herself, but she evidently has mental health issues of her own. She is spiteful toward a woman who deserves all that scorn.

At one point, a young man named Ray Dooley (Edmund Donovan) comes to the Folan "home." Later on, his older brother Pato (David Sedgwick) appears. Pato and Maureen kiss, even if this is awkward for her. The relationship between Pato and Maureen holds some promise. Mag is determined to douse any romance that would threaten to take Maureen away from her.

Packer, as a person outside of this play, is a force of nature. She founded this company and a number of years ago elected to primarily act. An empathetic, soul-stirring individual, she has been cast, now, as Mag—a woman without compassion. Mag is angry and stubborn and wishes for the only daughter still trapped with her—to continue as servant. She watches an old television, positioned downstage—but this does not distract from her focus on stage. Packer's face is in perpetual scowl/grimace. Aspenlieder, an appealing and attractive woman, must play a character who is desperate to get out and away from this awful station in life. She wishes to experience emotion, sex, love ... Not Mag. To the actress's credit, Maureen is believable and holds more than one dimension. Through Aspenlieder's convincing performance, an observer hopes Maureen will survive and transform for the better.

Packer and Aspenlieder have not acted together, while they have worked at the company together and surely have a sense of one another as colleagues. It is director Matthew Penn's position to encourage these two to spar, struggle and battle. Mag is dour, oppressive, and stuck. Maureen might escape; for now, however, she is exasperated, frustrated, and will do most anything to liberate herself. She steps up and goes toe-to-toe, to say the very least, with her impossible mother.

The male actors portray their characters with understanding and expertise. As Ray, who carries forth notes from his brother to Maureen, Donovan is consistent. Pato is a man of feeling, and actor Sedgwick, in an impressive turn, wears his fondness for Maureen upon his face.

The tone of Beauty Queen is dark but I am somehow prompted to recall the film version of The Glass Menagerie (directed by Paul Newman), a play which is, in comparison, far more tender. The mother and daughter skirmishes in each are different for sure ... Aspenlieder and Packer grapple with a honest ferocity. The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Bernstein Theater in Lenox is truthful and depressing. Within the context of a very full season of theater, it has a rightful place. The actors, who benefit from Penn's direction, are affectingly persuasive.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues at Shakespeare & Company's Bernstein Theater on the grounds in Lenox, Massachusetts through September 15th. For tickets, call (413) 637-3353 or visit

Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol

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