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The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Adam Langer

In most cases, the crucial object in a story is something imposing--a heavy wooden door behind which a child is hiding or a sturdy chest concealing a body. The fate of every character depends upon whether or not that object is discovered or opened and by whom. You root for it to remain closed, you hold your breath when it is not--you even hope that somehow good will come of its discovery, even as the armed soldier is turning the knob of the closet door.

But in Martin McDonagh's fine The Beauty Queen of Leenane--receiving its Chicago premiere in a virtually flawless production at Steppenwolf directed by Randall Arney--the object in question is merely an envelope containing a few pages of text. We know that if McDonagh's troubled antiheroine, Maureen Folan, gets the letter, she'll most likely move away from her drab life in the small town of Leenane to join her beloved Pato, the letter's author, in America. But if Maureen's mother, the miserable hypochondriac Mag (Aideen O'Kelly), gets the letter, she will surely destroy it and deny its existence, ensuring that her daughter will care for her till her death.

There the letter sits, propped on a table in Mag's dismal kitchen as she waits for Pato's brother, Ray, to depart so that she can chuck it into the fire. And the audience waits with unbearable impatience for Maureen to return home and reverse the inevitable downward course of her life. The tension is as nerve-racking as if the letter contained a bomb--and in effect it does, for it has the power to tear asunder the fates of all concerned. But in a play as bleak and fatalistic as this one, waiting for the right person to get the letter is like waiting for Oedipus to tell his mother "Not tonight, dear--I have a headache."

Part of the reason so much is at stake with this letter is that McDonagh--the hot young Anglo-Irish playwright who also authored The Cripple of Inishmaan--has painted such a dreary picture of Maureen's life that her escape would be almost as much of a relief for us as it would for her. In a house that reeks of piss--because Mag has a urinary tract infection and routinely dumps her chamber pot into the kitchen sink--Maureen plays the role of caretaker, cooking her mother's porridge, stirring her tea, performing all the drudgery that her two married sisters would never deign to perform.

Yet this is one of the least loving parent-child relationships since Pinter's The Homecoming. Maureen and Mag hurl verbal abuse at each other, but despite Maureen's occasionally caustic wit, this is no clever Albee-esque banter--beneath the grim repartee is nothing but hatred, and their relationship seems to survive only on the basis of desperate need. Laurie Metcalf, one of the finest stage actors Chicago has produced, is sly and sardonic when Maureen tells her mother, "I have a dream sometimes there of you, dressed all nice and white, in your coffin there." But ultimately we see that there's nothing the least bit humorous about the line, as it becomes all too clear that she means every word of it.

We've seen characters like Maureen before, a 40-year-old spinster sinking ever more deeply into bitterness and regret. Her life echoes those of the blossoming wallflowers in Williams's The Glass Menagerie and C.P. Taylor's And a Nightingale Sang. And Metcalf brings all of her seemingly unlimited reserves of talent to the role--every one of her movements and facial expressions speaks to her character's desperation, misery, and menace. When Maureen is clever, Metcalf triggers laughter, and when Maureen displays her temper, Metcalf's methodically threatening manner is nothing short of terrifying. But though sometimes Maureen evokes our empathy or sympathy, McDonagh inspires compassion only to cruelly snatch it away.

Into Maureen's joyless existence wanders one Pato Dooley, a naive man romantic enough to fall in love with Maureen on the night before he is to return to London and foolish enough to believe her when she tells him that the psychosis for which she was hospitalized was only an isolated incident and that the scars on her mother's body are the result of self-inflicted wounds. Played with an endearing humility and puppyish eagerness to please by the estimable Rick Snyder, Pato Dooley is the closest thing to a knight in shining armor this story has. The scenes between him and Maureen when they twirl off to bed and the next morning when they wake up are the most charming the play has to offer. McDonagh is a solid writer throughout, but here his smart dialogue and vivid characterizations take on the sparkle of hope. It comes with an equal dose of melancholy, however, for McDonagh is the Isaac Newton of playwrights: for every action in his play, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The greater the optimism generated at the end of the first act, the greater the price will be at the end of the second.

In his moonstruck letter, Pato tells of his job opportunity in America and his desire to have Maureen--the "beauty queen of Leenane," as he calls her--join him there. He's given strict instructions to Ray--the play's most original character, a telly-watching, violence-prone but good-hearted oaf hilariously played by Christopher Fitzgerald--to deliver the message only to Maureen herself. But this is the rare case in which an oft-pilloried messenger can truly be blamed. Ray's miscalculation sets into motion a horrifying chain of events that takes the play out of the realm of family drama and toward something so gloomy and violent it resembles a Jacobean tragedy of rage and retribution.

McDonagh clearly telegraphs the brutal coda to The Beauty Queen of Leenane: no playwright this attentive to structure would include detailed discussions of pokers and boiling oil if they weren't going to come up later. But surrounding the play's conclusion with an aura of inevitability doesn't necessarily mean that it best serves the characters or plot. And McDonagh presents a key event near the end of the play--before veering into Lizzie Borden territory--first as fact, then as psychotic hallucination. McDonagh's climax is chilling, demonstrating that theater still has the capacity to shock. But these elements, along with a final series of images that reflect in distorted fashion the play's opening scene, rob McDonagh's lead character of agency. Instead they seem designed to establish symmetry, revealing the destructive cycles that have persisted in the family for generations.

This view of matters is valid, of course, if somewhat familiar. But McDonagh stacks the deck to reach this point, and though his tactics may at first elicit stunned gasps, the more obvious they come to seem, the more dismissable they are. McDonagh's well-written, painstakingly structured play is like the letter lying on the table--it could yield many different results. But unfortunately it leads to the most predictable of the bunch.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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