- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2005

A toxic relationship between an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter is taken to grotesque and funny extremes in the Keegan Theatre’s highly charged production of Martin McDonagh’s play “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”

Linda High and Nanna Ingvarsson are so convincing in the roles of mother Mag Folan and daughter Maureen that you can practically smell the rancor — and that’s not the only odor pervading this urine-stained kitchen-sink drama. The atmosphere in the dingy Folan cottage in the Irish mountain town of Leenane reeks of indifferent cleaning and years of bad cooking coating the walls, a feeling brought to grimy life by George Lucas’ set, which is 1960s period-perfect right down to the photographs of JFK and RFK tacked onto the walls.

It is not a place you’d want to linger, but spending two hours with the battling Folan family is an excellent way to pass the time. Mag is a hypochondriac who spends her days sitting in a rocking chair listening to the radio and watching telly. She prattles on and acts helpless, running roughshod over her lonely, single daughter Maureen, who scurries around the cottage like a crazed hamster in a cage.

Mag is not going gentle into that good night. She is deceitful, nasty and will do anything to keep Maureen in her power. Maureen, who seems to have a tenuous hold on her sanity even in the best of times, is sinking fast. She welcomes death and fantasizes about a serial killer who comes into the house and murders her first, and she dies happy knowing her mother is the next victim.

Not a merry situation, and things worsen after Maureen attends a party in the village and trots home with Pato Dooley (Scott Graham), a neighbor now working in London. Although the evening begins as drunken groping, there is a scrap of tenderness in their fumblings, with Maureen’s desperation coming up against Pato’s affability. It is a memorable night, for many reasons.

Maureen sees Pato as her way out, and naturally, Mag feels threatened. She interferes with her daughter’s one chance at happiness, and the fallout sets off a chain reaction of disturbing, darkly comic events.

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” does not portray the Irish as charming, colorful storytellers. The people in Mr. McDonagh’s drama are mostly loony and vindictive, or in the case of Pato’s brother Ray (Joe Baker), majestically lazy. Pato seems to be a decent sort and has a lovely, vulnerable moment when he composes a “morning after” letter to Maureen and awkwardly sifts through his varying emotions, but even he disappoints in the end.

Director Mark A. Rhea does not try to humanize the characters, so the play’s abundant black humor comes full-throttle. The actors follow suit, with Miss High portraying Mag as a needy, incessant harpie.

At first, Miss Ingvarsson evokes a touch of sympathy as the put-upon Maureen, but she slowly lets you in on her character’s disturbed mind and taste for delusion. Mr. Baker provides great levity in the role of the layabout Ray, who goes hilariously slack-jawed at the sight of a television; Mr. Graham’s Pato is essentially decent but weak-willed and opportunistic.

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is a macabre character study written with an acid-dipped pen. Mr. McDonagh seems to have no sympathy for his characters, not even the trapped Maureen, who turns out to be just as dastardly and unhinged as her mother. Since you have no reason to like these people, you can just sit back and savor the spectacle of them railing against the misery that is their lives.

***

WHAT: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” by Martin McDonagh

WHERE: Keegan Theatre at Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through July 23

TICKETS: $25 to $20

PHONE:703/527-6000

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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