Back in 1996, Martin McDonagh, a 25-year-old playwright, made a stunning debut with his play The Beauty Queen of Leenane, revitalizing that old war horse, the well-made play. Within a few years, he had several more successes under his belt: A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West joined Leenane to form a trilogy, not to mention his Aran Islands plays, The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (a third is still expected for a second trilogy).
But then, in the aughts, McDonagh turned mostly to films—he wrote and directed a 2005 short, Six Shooter, that won an Oscar, and two features, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.
Druid, the Irish theater company visiting the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a 20th-anniversary revival of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, doesn’t so much confirm that McDonagh’s first hit is a terrific play, but that, like all great plays, it can be done differently, even though the director, Garry Hynes, guided the original.
The Beauty Queen of the title is Maureen Folan (Aisling O’Sullivan), a lonely spinster in rural Ireland whose burdensome mother, Mag, undermines her chances for happiness. In a brilliant bit of casting, Mag is now played by Marie Mullen, who won a Tony Award as the original Maureen. (Hynes became the first woman director to win a Tony.)
Their isolated cottage in Galway (by Frances O’Connor) has few visitors, but two are Pato Dooley (Marty Rea), a tall and lanky local who has found work in England and rarely returns to the family home, and his younger brother Ray (Aaron Monaghan), who dresses in bright modern sportswear and gripes at delivering messages to Maureen: “A whole afternoon I’m wasting here, when I could be home watching telly.”
In this production Hynes has brought out more subtly the cruelty and pain in both women. This time around, it’s clear that Mag is not the slovenly Gorgon one may remember. Although she is relentless in her machinations against her daughter’s happiness, there’s a pronounced element of fear underlying them.
In O’Sullivan’s performance, it’s also plain that Maureen is deeply troubled, although it’s probable that her mother has made her so. Their passive-aggressive relationship is obvious, as the power shifts back and forth between them. Yet the horror still persists, as the play’s Jacobean dynamics sometimes evoke What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Along with the blackest comedy, McDonagh works in threads of social and political issues as well. The painting of The Immaculate Heart of Mary that sits over the doorway is a telling symbol of virginity, one that the selfish yet frightened Mag wishes imposed on her unmarried daughter in order to be assured of a caregiver in her old age. Apart from that mild swipe at Catholicism, there are some amusing discussions of the cultural hegemony of English over Gaelic that erodes the Irish identity, and of the lack of jobs in Ireland.
The actors are all superb. Mullen is a canny Mag, by turns scathing and wheedling. Though she has a scene in a bathrobe, her hair is curled and she is more presentable throughout than in the original. As Ray, Aaron Monaghan brings much comic relief. Waiting by the gimlet-eyed Mag with a letter that she wants a look at, he bounces around the small cottage, complaining about a childhood wrong involving a tetherball. As Pato, the tall Rea has a softness and gentleness that promise the right match for Maureen, but also an admirable determination not to be thrown by Mag’s disdain for her daughter.
Although it is an ensemble, O’Sullivan is the focus of the play, as she endures her mother’s grumpiness and whining, yet hopes for her own happiness to arrive. When she exults in Pato’s having stayed the night, she swans around the cottage in her slip, with Mag’s eyes shooting darts of hatred. The tragedy of the last moments registers deeply.
There are only a couple quibbles. The Irish accents are really thick, and it’s a struggle to attune one’s ear to them. And an important scene falls flat, both in sound design (by Greg Clarke) and in the response of one character being burned by boiling oil.
Last year the Royal Court in London premiered Hangmen, McDonagh’s first play in more than a decade, which won the Olivier Award as best play. Hynes’s revival of The Beauty Queen of Leenane should whet one’s appetite at the prospect that this modern genius is returning to the theater.
Druid’s 20th-anniversary production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane plays through Feb. 5 at the BAM Harvey Theater (30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Place and St. Felix St. in Brooklyn) in Brooklyn. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 17–21, 24–28, and Jan. 31–Feb. 4; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. For ticket information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit BAM.org.