The playwright Martin McDonagh must be one of those sensitive people who respond to every strand of emotion in the air. He was born in London to Irish parents and spent little time in Ireland as a child, aside from family vacations to County Galway.
Yet in those short visits, McDonagh seems to have absorbed enough Irish romance to place three of his early plays there. The central motif of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, his first play (1996), is the plaintive folk ballad "The Spinning Wheel," sung by Delia Murphy, known as the "queen of Connemara," located in County Galway.
"The Spinning Wheel"— written in 1834 but revived by Murphy in 1939— tells of a daughter tethered to home, caring for her blind grandmother. Her beau has beckoned to her through the cottage window to go roving with him through the grove in the moonlight. The daughter tricks her mother by figuring out how to keep the wheel moving— for a while, at least— and the lovers get some precious time together.
The Beauty Queen, which takes place in Galway about 1990, toys with the song's idea as seen through the prism of real life, where it runs a very difference course: one based on cruelty and betrayal. Forty-year-old Maureen Folan (Megan Bellwoar) cares for Mag, her mother (Mary Martello), but they're at each other's throats from the opening lines, as Maureen enters from outside.
"Of course wet"— and their exchanges deteriorate from there.
Mag suffers several physical disabilities of old age but, worse, she's demanding and offensive. Each morning, she tauntingly pours her "wee" down the kitchen sink. "I'm going to vomit," blurted a member of the audience nearby, accurately responding not only to the coarse gesture but also to the feeling that the walls are ineluctably closing in on Maureen.
Hungry for love
Mag keeps Maureen isolated and essentially imprisoned, but what really keeps Maureen home is her own earlier disastrous foray into the world. Before caring for her mother, Maureen worked in England as a housekeeper, but her employers' anti-Irish taunts deeply unnerved her, and she ended up institutionalized for a month. Although now she wants to escape her mother, she has good reason to doubt her own competence to navigate outside relationships.
Maureen's life lacks love, until she makes a pitch for her neighbor, Pato Dooley (Charlie DelMarcelle), an agreeable sort who works in construction in England and has returned home for a few days. The question posed by McDonagh is: Can she rewrite her destiny?
Asleep, or dead?
In the course of The Beauty Queen, "The Spinning Wheel" is played twice over the radio. When Maureen and Pato hear it, they clearly understand its relevance. Wistfully, Maureen asks Pato: Is the grandmother dead or asleep? They decide she's asleep.
The play, divided into nine scenes rather than two or three acts, is itself a beauty queen of playwriting. McDonagh's strong suit is tight composition. He makes the smallest detail count: The house's location— on top of a steep, rocky hill—is described but not seen. Ditto for the presence of Americans, also never seen but given an offstage send-off in scene three.
Or consider the tossed-off profundity of Mag's early reference to America as better than England "because in America it does be more sunny anyways. (Pause). Or is that just something they say, that the weather is more sunny, Maureen? Or is that a lie, now?"
Two dramatic faults
The Beauty Queen suffers two faults. The clash between mother and daughter, which begins sharply, lacks space either to intensify or resolve. Early and late in the play, Mag intercepts letters written to Maureen and disposes of both in the same way— an indication that the loathing between them is profound, but static.
The other weakness is that the repulsive Mag lacks complexity. She lacks any redeeming quality that might explain why Maureen feels so obliged to care for her. Even the browbeaten George Segal in Where's Poppa? finally worked up the gumption to move his senile but overbearing mother to a nursing home.
Within this flawed vehicle, Bellwoar and Martello make worthy, convincing combatants. Martello as Mag wheedles with a false neediness that's equally riveting and repelling to watch.
Bellwoar absolutely soars at the very end, as her Maureen catches a glimpse of the remainder of her life, and both her face and body express the horror. Director Kathryn MacMillan lets her wring out the despair over many a long, wrenching and dramatically cathartic scene.
At the performance I attended, Bellwoar seemed to be affected by the depths of hopelessness she had reached. At the curtain call, she wiped her cheek with her fingers after bowing, and as she turned to run off, Sean Lally (who plays Ray, Pato's brother) saw her and put his arm around her, as if to help her emerge from her portrayal.
Cast members often embrace, especially after a particularly strong performance or on opening night, but this struck me as something more. Bellwoar seemed grateful for a supporting shoulder, and she had well earned it.♦
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To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.