A dark sort of Beauty in “Leenane”

What lies in Leenane's horizon? Is it madness? Is it murder?

Watching plays can be disarming. Unlike television, where there is an obvious physical barrier between you and the actors on the screen, theater is close and immediate, like being trapped at a stranger’s birthday party. When done right, theatrical productions pierce the fourth wall in a nuanced, quiet way. They reel you in slowly until reality and fiction begin to blur.

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” provides this sort of experience: intimate, gripping and wholly unexpected.

Set in the unassuming Irish village of Leenane, the play initially appears to be no more than a simple domestic drama between a middle-aged woman and her ornery elderly mother. Little by little, though, the narrative darkens, the characters’ natures become confused and spectators find themselves deeply ensconced in a psychological journey. Seamlessly directed and laced with black humor, the production sends a jolt through the audience with each turn of its twisted plot.

“It’s a surprise how sane I’ve turned out,” says Maureen Folan (Willa Fitzgerald ’13), the 40-year-old spinster whose tragedy is at the center of the drama. She is speaking in reference to the suffocating presence of her mother, but this also gets at the crux of the play. What is sanity, and who possesses it? The story is a dance between the competing forces of deception and truth, reason and madness.

Under the guise of an archetypal love story between newly reunited childhood friends, Maureen and Pato (Gabe Greenspan ’14), “The Queen Bee of Leenane” paints a gruesome picture of personal anguish beneath rural Ireland’s idyllic façade. The arguments between Maureen and her mother, Mag (Sarah DeLappe ’12), start out as typical quarrels. Mag warns Maureen against associating herself with men, and Maureen accuses her mother of being prudish. Maureen is resentful because she has been taking care of her mother for the past 25 years instead of leading a life of her own, a sentiment that appears typical of an adult child tasked with caring for an aging parent. That is, until it adopts violent undertones.

When Maureen daydreams of another life, she is explicit about what it would include: a man around her arm and her mother in a coffin. When Mag protests — “That’s a mean dream!” — Maureen retorts, “I suppose now you’ll be hanging on just to spite me.” Their conversations continue on in this manner, with Maureen becoming increasingly murderous in her threats and Mag resisting being made the weaker party. When Mag accuses Maureen of having once forced her hand under boiling water, you can’t tell which of the two is the crazy one.

Amidst the tension of Maureen’s romantic and familial strife, the guileless Ray (Ryan Bowers ’14) provides much-needed comic relief. The quintessential boy next door, Ray is Pato’s younger adolescent brother and the designated messenger of the family. Whenever he visits the Folan home with messages from Pato, he is lured into conversation with the unaccommodating Mag, who enjoys having someone other than Maureen to whom to complain and from whom to request porridge and Complan, a lumpy nutritional beverage.

Since Ray is oblivious to the bleaker affairs of the Folans, his interactions with Mag and Maureen are humorously absurd in light of the play’s darker happenings. As he sits in the kitchen, he eats the Kimberly biscuits that are loathed by the other three characters and comments on the boredom of Ireland.

On his penchant for foreign television, Ray says, “Who wants to see Ireland on the telly? Soon bored you’d be.” Making a slow, sloping gesture with his hand, he says drily as if looking at a window, “There goes a calf.”

But “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” does not rest long on these comical breaks. By the last couple of scenes, it has plunged the audience deep into the drama of Pato’s supposed desire to move to America with Maureen and Maureen’s potent method of making sure her mother is “taken care of” while she is gone. Because no dramatic irony is employed, the audience is taken through the psychological thriller via the lens of the frenzied characters themselves. There is no certainty surrounding what is true and what isn’t, which characters are dangerous and which ones are normal. Even when the truth sinks in during the final scene, you leave the theater replaying moments in your head, trying to fish out reality from illusion.

Don’t let the fact that it’s Friday before spring break deter you from coming to see this play. “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is not only a testament to the fragility of the human mind, but also a chilling reminder that nothing is ever exactly as it seems.

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