It would be hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to have the wind taken out of your sails than taking in the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s production of Martin McDonagh’s black-hearted Gothic comedy “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” which opened Friday night in the Andrews Theatre.
Filled with spite, cruelty, stunted ambition and delusion occasionally interrupted by dim flickers of illusory hope, Vincent O’Neill’s consummate production takes audiences on an uncomfortable journey deep into the mountainous region of Ireland’s Connemara and the minds of two people trapped there.
There, in a tiny house at the bottom of a steep hill, we find the elderly Mag (Josephine Hogan) and her spinster daughter, Maureen (Kristen Tripp Kelley), engaged in what seems to be the latest scene in some strange Irish sitcom. Hogan played the role of the daughter opposite Zoaunne LeRoy as Maureen in a 2000 Studio Arena Theatre production, which O’Neill also directed.
They nag and needle each other in the way only mothers and daughters who have stayed together too long do. When Maureen tromps along the crunchy stone path (a sonic stroke of genius by set designer Brian Cavanagh) and enters shivering from the rain, her mother’s first instinct is to rob her daughter of a brief moment of relief and focus her attention on her own misery.
“Wet, Maureen?” Mag asks with a slight smirk. “Of course wet,” she responds, whereupon the two begin a fusillade of miniature arguments, each one a little louder and darker than the last.
“You’re old and you’re stupid and you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” Maureen says in a typical admonition. “Now eat your porridge.”
And so it goes on – “Cold, Maureen?” “Of course cold.” – growing sharper thorns as the story progresses toward its predictable end.
This play, McDonagh’s first hit, employs plenty of threadbare devices to surprisingly fresh effect. Its resolution, for instance, hinges on a lost letter. Its claustrophobic setting and id-driven central characters echo Tennessee Williams.
But the enjoyment factor comes largely from McDonagh’s skill at cutting the dark themes of the play with a sensibility verging on camp, which O’Neill has played up here to exactly the right degree. In Hogan’s exaggerated facial expressions you can see flickers of “Mommie Dearest” or “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
How this works so well against the genuine and heartfelt relationship and dialogue between Maureen and her brief love interest, Pato Dooley (Chris Kelly) – and with McDonagh’s soft deployment Mag and Maureen’s tortured relationship as a metaphor for Ireland’s tortured relationship with England – is one of those unsolvable mysteries of the theater.
Maureen, with death ever on her mind and a disturbing tendency toward the delusional, seems some strange Irish amalgam of Blanche DuBois and Hedda Gabler, an exposed nerve-ending of frustrated sexual desire. Opposite Hogan’s often hilarious performance as Mag, Kelley brings life to Maureen’s rage, confusion and desperate yearning for a better life. When she raises her eyes to the ceiling and tells her mother that she sometimes dreams of “anything other than this,” it breaks your heart.
As Pato Dooley, Kelly, like the character, is almost too good to be true. His long monologue in which he reads a letter to Maureen is a master class. And Adam Yellen, in a performance as Pato’s brother Ray that calls to mind that testosterone-driven boob we all knew in high school, brings a welcome bit of comic relief.
Cavanagh’s set is a perfectly disheveled hovel reflecting the disorder of its characters’ minds, accentuated by his equally fine lighting design. Andrea Gollhardt’s costumes and Tom Makar’s sound design – both peerless – complete the grim picture with requisite subtlety and skill.
What: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”
Where: Andrews Theatre, 618 Main St.
When: Through May 17
Tickets: $39 or $15 for students
Info: 853-4282 or irishclassicaltheatre.com