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The Beauty Queen of Leenane, onstage at Mt. Airy’s Allens Lane Art Center in this year’s Fringe, follows Maureen, a 40-year-old woman, and her aging mother, Mag. The two women share a home in the small Irish town of Leenane, by turns cozy or cramped. Mag is physically reliant on Maureen, and the only power she’s left with is the special one of a mother to get under her daughter’s skin. For her part, Maureen shares little connection to others, and resentfully takes care of her wheedling mother.
But suddenly, their small world is blown open when Maureen (Rochelle Longwill) meets Pato Dooley (Steve Travers), who offers one last chance at love and a life outside Leenane. Perceiving a threat to her established order, Mag (Paula Kem) is determined to prevent her daughter from leaving at all costs. As the threat of change looms, playwright Martin McDonagh casts the relationship between mother and daughter in an intense and disturbing light.
He’s the hand behind The Pillowman (which will be onstage at Media’s Hedgerow Theatre this fall), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that what begins as an incisive portrait of close ties turns dark (the show is recommended for ages 18 and up). Yet McDonagh does a masterful job of allowing only hints of a dagger in a few small moments during the first half of the show, surprising you when it’s pulled in the second half and is somehow all too familiar.
This dramatic shift is successful under the direction of Josh Hitchens and is in large part built up through Kem’s superb performance as Mag. Slight gestures, the scrunching of a petulant nose, the wave of a dry and dismissive hand—her performance perfectly captures an elderly petulance and the meanness of age. By contrast, Maureen is a blustery character whose performance lacks the same steady nuance, although Longwill shines in quieter, more intimate scenes.
The Irish dialect work here varies in quality by actor, but with Hitchens’s direction and Kem’s convincing performance, the production is ultimately successful in transporting us.
The play, which is set against the backdrop of an exodus from Ireland, pits change against stasis, and McDonagh hones in on the close relationship between Mag and Maureen while the world around them appears to mirror their tense dysfunction: is it Irish or English that should be spoken? (“English is more useful for begging,” notes Mag drily.) Is it better to stay in a fading country or leave for unknown shores and hard labor? Does inexperience preserve a person’s innocence or decay it?
McDonagh's writing answers none of these questions but instead loops slowly, touching on an injury here, a hurt there, as if checking if the meat is tender. And as the characters descend into madness, the play circles ever more tightly, waiting to pick at whatever remains when the stage lights cut. It’s an end worth waiting for, and you won’t want to miss a word of it.
What, When, Where
The Beauty Queen of Leenane. By Martin McDonagh, directed by Josh Hitchens. $20. Through October 2, 2022, at Allens Lane Art Center Theater, 601 W. Allens Lane, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Covid-19 vaccination is not checked; marks are required in the theater.
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