Tense, even combative mother-daughter relationships aren't unusual when the daughter is an adolescent. Most of these relationships improve, however, when the daughter has reached her twenties.
But not always. In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, one of Martin McDonagh's earliest plays--perhaps the first, but that's uncertain--he introduces a terrifying mother-daughter pairing (the toughest in theater annals?). Now the participants' high-voltage family fracas is on scandalizing display in an immaculate revival at BAM.
Mag Folan (Marie Mullen) rarely rises from her rocking-chair in the squalid Connemara, County Galway home that Francis O'Connor recreates these 20 or so years on from the original Druid production, directed then and now by Garry Hynes. (The print of a beatific Virgin Mary over the door is the only colorful feature. Otherwise, it's all grey walls, aging refrigerator, heater and battered table and old radio.)
Complaining about her bad leg--the chronic "bone on bone" pain--Mag has no need to do for herself. She has forty-ish daughter Maureen (Aisling O'Sullivan) to do for her. Not uncomplainingly, though. Mag buckles under with hatred lodged in her dominated heart.
As the daughter nominated by siblings to be the carer for an infirm (or seemingly infirm) parent, Maureen is a sad figure common to many families, and she understandably resents it--all the while only fleetingly recognizing that she's allowed herself to take on the role for unexamined psychological reasons.
Mag's underlying motivation is her fear that she will be abandoned. To counter that, she's undermined whenever possible Maureen's hope for a life of her own. Prominently, she either lies about or destroys anything that might separate Maureen from her. She's also not averse when provoked to recalling a previous breakdown Maureen suffered.
Late in McDonagh's taut and chilling two-act play, Mag's loathsome tactics include burning a marriage proposal contained in a letter from Pato Dooley (Marty Rea), who's taken a heart-warming fancy to Maureen and she, at long last, to him. The doomed letter has been delivered by Ray Dooley (Aaron Monaghan), Pato's somewhat dim-witted younger brother, a lad who frequently drops in on the Folans and does enjoy the Kimberley biscuits Maureen stocks simply because Mag dislikes them.
It's Ray who mentions the unpleasant odor in the Folan home, which Maureen and the audience know results from Mag's pouring her urine in the kitchen sink rather than venturing to the unseen bathroom. (Or it is an outhouse? Could be, given this squalor.) McDonagh has her witnessed indulging this habit relatively early in his script. Mag denies the action, of course.
The relatively minor activity in Mag's string of abuses remains only one of the many accumulating taunts she aims Maureen's way--taunts that Maureen doesn't shy away from meeting and raising. Eventually, the mounting mother-daughter battle, particularly the disappeared letter, leads to a radical development that won't be described here.
That eventuality probably doesn't catch too many audience members off guard. It's something that doesn't attain the reassuring end the perpetrator hopes, and it has everything to do with McDonagh's immense playwriting skills.
For those who don't know, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the first of McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy. (The others are The Lonesome West and A Skull in Connemara.) These plays along with the Aran Island Trilogy (The Lieutenant of inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan and the still-unproduced The Banshees of Inisheer) were all written in the early 1990s, mostly in McDonagh's extremely fertile 1994.
Instantly, McDonagh demonstrated that he possessed a unique vision. Born in London of Irish parents who, like many before them, moved to England in search of work, he visited Ireland in summers. So though he had experience of his parents' homeland, he was also brought up with the English attitudes towards the myth of Ireland. Undoubtedly, that accounts for the hint of spoofery that permeates the playwright's vision of Ireland.
Director Hynes, the first to take a chance on McDonagh, refers to it as "mythic" and "distant."
Thereby comes the dark humor, not to say the hilarity, common to the plays as well as the recurring macabre atmosphere. Laughing heartily while gazing in shock is hardly an unusual response to McDonagh's works. His unmistakable hallmarks are spread like margarine on bread throughout The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which, by the way, McDonagh wrote in three weeks when he was 25.
A particular talent McDonagh has is lodging in his plots implications of what's to come so that spectators sense the untenable pickles in which his characters will find themselves immersed. He's diabolical at the kinds of things that have ticket buyers silently screaming "Don't go that, don't go there" at the endangered figures. The skill is a good part of his torturing fun.
(Incidentally, by the mid-'90s, McDonagh announced he would no longer write for the stage and turned to movies, like the brilliant In Bruges. He has since resumed with the not-top-drawer A Behanding in Spokane and the scintillating-for-myriad-reasons Hangman, which has yet to be produced stateside. Apparently, there is even a newer play ready to go.)
Returning to, and perhaps even enhancing her achievement, now that she's taken it up again, Hynes, the first woman to in a Tony for direction, does so with a remarkable cast.
As Pato, Rea has a masculine sincerity about him. He's especially effective sitting in a square of light at the act-two beginning reciting the crucial letter he sends brother Ray to put directly into Maureen's hands. Monaghan's Ray starts many of his lines with a high, breaking voice that then settles in a moderate range. It's only one contributing factor to his Kimberley-loving, easily-gulled-by-Mag performance.
AsMaureen, tall, fit, wired O'Sullivan is an upright battering ram. Alternately giving mother Mag as good (as bad?) as she gets at times and tied in metaphorical knots at other times, she has a toolbox full of hard looks to aim at her tormenter. It's a gallant show, maybe no more gallant than in her final undone moments.
Then there's Mullen's Mag. The irony here for longtime Beauty Queen of Leenane fans is that Mullen appeared as Maureen in the original production. Now she's turned into her mother (as so many women eventually do, while men turn into their fathers) in the most impressive way. Ceaselessly needling O'Sullivan's Maureen, she's savage. Maybe the cruelest of her traits, though, are the pleased grins she lets slip (out of Maureen's view) when she thinks she's one-upped her unfortunate daughter.
For many theater-basted patrons, getting to see Mullen in this switch will be a wonderful gift, as is, unquestionably, the new production.