Beauty Queen of Leenane
It begins, as many things do, with a glance. The always dependable Mary Martello, about to commit the first of the evening's many deplorable acts, takes a quick, barely interested glance at her television.
An uninteresting action, to be sure, except for the fact that she is holding a flame in her hand.
This is the first indication that Martin McDonagh's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," which opened Wednesday at the Lantern Theater, will be more than just an amusing domestic comedy. What follows is a glorious mess of boiling water, cooking oil, urine and blood.
This should not be surprising to anyone familiar with McDonagh's work. The author of the plays "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," "The Pillowman" and "A Behanding in Spokane," as well as the writer/director of the films "In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths," McDonagh has become the 21st century's king of theatrical tragicomedic bloodshed.
"The Beauty Queen of Leenane," which won four Tony Awards in 1998, was McDonagh's first play, and the first part of his Leenane trilogy, which continued with "A Skull in Connemara" and "The Lonesome West."
And Lantern Theater Company, who staged the other two parts of the Leenane Trilogy, delivers a stellar production here. With the cast and crew delivering top-notch performances, it's a hilarious, intense, haunting night of theatre.
Forty-year-old Maureen (a magnificent Megan Bellwoar) lives a life of quiet desperation with her bitter, pathetic mother (Martello). Spending her days making Mag's porridge and Complan, Maureen gets a hopeful shot in the arm when old love interest Pato (a fully real and heartwarming Charlie DelMarcelle) comes back to town.
Maureen and Mag have a relationship that is not so much love-hate as it is tolerate-hate. As life in the small Irish town of Galway continue to pass the women by, they take out their anger and despondency on each other through both emotional manipulation and physical violence, leading to a pairing of stellar plot twists in the last scenes of the play.
Kathryn MacMillan's direction gets the most out of silence and ambience, filling the voids with intensity and meaning. Following her lead, Dirk Durossette's set, Shon Causer's lights, Maggie Baker's costumes and especially Daniel Perelstein's sound make the most of subtlety, delivering stellar designs without calling attention away from the story.
Particularly notable amongst the members of the cast (which includes Sean Lally's hilarious portrayal as a deadbeat pseudo-courier) is the sense of history. McDonagh works best with small towns and broken families, and the ease with which Bellwour and Martello are able to do very bad things to each other perfectly capture a broken home that, like Mag's scarred hand, is beyond repair.
While "Beauty Queen" has its share of horrific moments, it is possibly his most human as well. The pity that you feel for Maureen, even as her desperation turns to violence, is a testament not only to McDonagh's storytelling skills, but also to Bellwour's performance.
In this snow-less, rain-filled winter, a bit of gallows humor might just be what is needed on an overcast night. And by staging a fantastic production, MacMillan and crew have given us a truly gorgeous "Beauty Queen."
"The Beauty Queen of Leenane" runs through Feb. 10 at the St. Stephen's Theater on 10th & Ludlow Streets in Philadelphia. For tickets and information, call 215-829-0395 or visit www.lanterntheater.org.