Written by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Kathleen Duborg. An Ensemble Theatre Company production. At Jericho Arts Centre on Wednesday, July 18. Continues to August 17
“You’re the exact feckin’ image of your Mam!”
For 40-year-old Maureen (Kirsten Slenning), in Martin McDonagh’s play The Beauty Queen of Leenane, there is no sentence in the world more hurtful.
Maureen has sacrificed her youth and her prospects in order to take care of her ailing mother, Mag (Tanja Dixon-Warren), for the last two decades in a rundown house in the small town of Leenane, in Galway, Ireland. When Maureen attends a party against Mag’s wishes, she brings home Pato (Ashley O’Connell) and the morning after, a huge fight breaks out between the two women. Mag does everything she can to sabotage the fledgling romance, and when Maureen pieces together the extent of her mother’s interference, the tensions between the two women explode.
In the play, McDonagh offers a darkly compelling, if bleak, Irish twist on the familiar subversion of the “good mother” and the gendered notion that all women are natural caregivers. Mag is demanding and ungrateful, and thinks nothing of gaslighting and ridiculing her daughter. Maureen is bitter and obviously suffering the effects of long-term emotional and verbal abuse. She takes pleasure in antagonizing Mag however she can to shift the power dynamic in her favour, openly fantasizing about Mag’s murder or suffering acts of violence.
But the relationship is even messier than it sounds, and as the complicated truth unfolds in the play’s powerful second act, it’s hard to know which damaged woman deserves our sympathy. Probably both, maybe neither—though it’s impossible not to feel compassion at the tragedy of their lives.
It’s easy to imagine McDonagh having written this play after watching the great documentary Grey Gardens and the eccentric-if-mildly-toxic codependency between Big Edie and Little Edie. Mag and Maureen’s relationship is much more twisted and malicious, and Dixon-Warren and Slenning handle the material well, but they both feel like they’re holding back. There’s an energy to McDonagh’s words, as well as an emotional depth, and this production sometimes prioritizes one over the other.
This production also got off to a rough start. Between the affectations of Irish accents and the loudness of the building’s fan throughout the first scene, it was almost impossible to hear the actors—a fact that caused several audience members to move to to open seats closer to the stage. Thankfully, by the second scene, the loudest fans shut off and the rest of the show was audible.
O’Connell’s performance as the genial, supportive Pato is delightfully, effortlessly charming and he almost steals the show, but Dixon-Warren and Slenning hit their stride in Act 2. They are electrifying in Mag and Maureen’s climactic confrontation, a visceral and horrifying moment that makes The Beauty Queen of Leenane impossible to forget.