my review of neptune's new play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, is on the Halifax Magazine site today.
The Ugly Beauty Queen of Leenane
There’s a nervous titter that infects a Neptune Theatre audience when it’s not sure if it’s watching a comedy or a tragedy and so laughs every 90 seconds to be on the safe side, and then wonders what it’s laughing at. The Beauty Queen of Leenane starts out lightly with Mary Colin Chisholm’s comedic portrayal of a bitter old woman, Mag Folan, stuck in a miserable rural Irish cottage with her equally bitter daughter Maureen (played by Laura de Carteret). The laughs are regular until about 20 minutes in, when we realize we have just laughed at elder abuse, followed by a chortle about mutilating a dog.
At this point, the play could have derailed, the dark matter lost in misplaced mirth, but strong performances from Chisholm and Carteret keep the grim tale on track. Mother and daughter have lived alone together for almost all of the daughter’s life and at 40, Maureen blames Mag for her never-been-kissed spinsterhood. Maureen dreams of the day she is freed from serving her mother and enduring her nasty comments; she fantasizes about meeting a man at her mother’s wake and being swept into a new, love-filled life. Mag is bent on keeping her caretaker daughter single and tending to her every need and so schemes to rupture any plans of departure.
The relationship is put to the test when gentle Pato Dooley (Hugh Thompson) notices Maureen on a brief return to Ireland from his life in England. It seems Maureen may have her escape, and Mag may be left alone. The play tumbles into darkness as the women fight a final battle of wills, two sinking people who won’t let go of each other’s throats long enough to swim to shore. The shocking climax left the shaken opening-night audience gasping.
That said, there are problems with the Beauty Queen. The actors gamely try to perform in accent, but the efforts at a Connemara lilt roam all over the Emerald Isle, mixing in a bit of England, Newfoundland and even a spot of Cape Breton. English playwright Martin McDonagh wrote Beauty Queen based on his recollections of summer vacations in ancestral Ireland and his inverted sentence structure makes the play sound like it was written by Yoda.
At the core of Beauty Queen is misery and mental illness, but neither are examined in 3D. Is the hate-filled mother-daughter relationship caused by unhappy circumstances, the innate cruelty of both women, mental-health problems or by Ireland itself? What is finally offered as revealing explanation feels more like a good first question, and the play ends without breaking new ground in understanding the inner workings of the mother and daughter. Apart from pleasant Pato Dooley, everyone in this play is horrible. It’s hard to hope for a good outcome for anyone. The end will sear itself into your mind, but in the same way as passing a car wreck on the way home. You’ll shake your head at the tragedy and drive on.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall until March 20. Call 429-7070 or go to Neptunetheatre.com for tickets.