The Beauty Queen of Leenane

This Beauty Queen is harsh but effective, gritty as a sandpaper shamrock

Arts Review

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

The Vortex, through June 21

There are many different reasons to have children. When the standard of living is high, children can be a symbol of love and commitment between parents, to be treasured and nurtured. In other times and places, children are created to serve as a work force for their parents. They may be born from obligation, accident, or religious duty. They are not loved well.

The mother and daughter of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane fall into the deep well of the last category. Set in economically depressed rural Ireland, the play opens with 70-year-old Mag Folan (Jennifer Underwood) sitting in a filthy robe and slippers, in a filthy chair, in a filthy house. She isn't bedridden or immobile, but something in her wants to be, just for the sake of being served. One of her hands has been scalded. It's up to her middle-aged, frumpy daughter, Maureen (Lorella Loftus), who never managed to escape the clutches of home, to cater to the nasty woman's beck and call. The only time they ever have fun together is when discussing the other person's gruesome demise.

All of which is to say that this is a good play, but it is not gentle. There is a reason why the program lists a "Gore Master" among the production team.

It's only when Pato Dooley (Marc Balester) stays over one night – and decides that Maureen's not so bad – that things reach their boiling point. Mag is incensed and terrified, and Maureen is gleeful to the point of craziness. As an affectionate guy with low expectations, Pato does his best with the raging womenfolk, and Balester succeeds in creating a doofy and lovable character who is fun to watch.

Beauty Queen is an assault on the idea that every child is automatically loved. It's also an assault on a romanticized Ireland, the kind that's filled with Michael Flatley step-dancing and rosy-cheeked leprechauns. In this play, grimy, drab walls take the place of emerald-green hills. Young people must leave to find work in an anti-immigrant London, and the ones who stay behind are left to stew in their own boredom.

The cast has a tough job. Mag and Maureen are continually fencing, but by now it's a battle they have fought many times, and the balance between rage and routine is tricky. In this production, some of the momentum is lost in the pauses that fall between each strike, as the actors work back up to their reactions. However, that it's possible at all for the audience to see things from Mag's point of view is to the credit of Underwood, who can make Mag's demands seem halfway reasonable at times.

By its end, Beauty Queen evolves into a diagram of how one monster can create another. It's a vicious story by a writer enamored of violent, well-structured tales.

Yet as I left after one performance, my companion said to me quietly, "Yeah, the old lady's pretty bad ... but think how bad it would be if she were smart, too."

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Beauty Queen of Leenane, McDonagh, Renaissance Austin Theatre

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