The Beauty Queen of Leenane


My Martin McDonagh obsession began in 2005 when I saw The Pillowman on Broadway, a show so unlike anything a theater geek like myself had ever seen before, that I had to see it twice. Part of the play’s ingenious lied in the direction the show took in act two, as the story could have finished after act one.

“Who wrote this and how did he or she do it?!” I kept thinking.

At intermission, I tore into the Playbill to read up on the playwright, and long after the final curtain call, I did some hardcore Martin McDonagh Googling. I’m half Irish, and I subsequently gloated to everyone I knew who had seen the play (because everyone loved it) that I shared a heritage with the Irish playwright.

In McDonagh’s Playbill bio, I had read that he wrote The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and I remembered the 1998 Broadway production very well even though I hadn’t seen it. Firstly, the unforgettable poster….I was confounded by how the poster for a play with the term“beauty queen” in its title would feature a close-up of an unattractive scowling old woman. Secondly, the name reminded me of my best friend’s name: Leeann. Lastly, I also remember watching the Tony Awards with my mom, and her hushing me when the Irish cast members made their acceptance speeches. Although I didn’t see it, I was nevertheless fascinated that the very same playwright of The Pillowman had penned the play that had intrigued me as a teenager.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane broke a couple of Broadway records. Not only was it was the first time an entire cast (yes, all four actors) received acting nominations, but the play’s director Garry Hynes, a Druid theater co-founder, was the first woman to win a Tony for directing. Anna Manahan and Marie Mullen (the other Druid co-founder) played mother and daughter Mag and Maureen Folan, each winning for supporting and lead actress respectively. Brían F. O’Byrne  (well-known to Broadway audiences today) and the late Tom Murphy (he passed away far too soon), who won for supporting, played the gentlemen characters. (O’Byrne and Murphy were up against each other so only one could win).

When I was in Galway this summer, I by chance stumbled upon the Druid Theater, where The Beauty Queen of Leenane premiered in 1996, and saw that a twentieth anniversary revival was in the works. The aforementioned Marie Mullen would be taking on the role of Mag and Garry Hynes was on board to direct once again.

Needless to say, I just knew that I had to see the production, so I ordered tickets for performance at the Gaiety Theater in Dublin. The play was traumatic; I left the theater in heart-wrenching emotional pain and my thoughts were completely consumed by the story that had just unfolded on stage. I couldn’t stop talking about it, and I loved every second of it.

McDonagh’s trademark dark humor shone through the dialogue and as I normally do when I see his plays, I found myself laughing at stuff that I then question myself for laughing at. However, this was the most emotional play of his that I have ever seen. The emotion made it darker, and when the plot took a turn for the worse, it felt like my heart had been ripped out of me. More than a month later, I’m still contemplating the painfully tragic ending, and—I’m not going to lie—I get a little choked up thinking about it. I had read the play years ago, but knowing how it ended didn’t mollify any of the shock. I still have so many questions!

The stellar cast was polished, nuanced and perfect. Marie Mullen was ruthless as Mag…sharp, vicious, and just brutal to her daughter. I wondered what it was like for Mullen to not only see a different portrayal of the character she originated from the other side, but to play a character that she saw from the other side for years.

Aisling O’Sullivan’s fierce portrayal of the tormented Maureen tugged on my heart-strings. Her desperation and wish for happiness lead to a tragic pinnacle, and (kind of like Game of Thrones) there’s no sugar-coating the plot line for a happy ending. Maureen and Mag shared one of the most dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships I had ever seen. Mag is without question terrible to daughter, but I didn’t think that justified some of Maureen’s actions. As they went back and forth tormenting one another, my sympathies went back and forth between the two of them. If you have not seen the play and you read what I just wrote, you might think, “oh, they’re mother and daughter. Deep down, they love each other.” No. They really didn’t. They hated each other. Maureen was bipolar and her mother did nothing to mollify her mental instability, but rather exacerbated it.

The two male characters, Ray and Pato Dooley (played by Aaron Monaghan and Marty Rea respectively), who couldn’t be more different were the only people from the outside world that we the audience got to see. Ray, the youngest of the two, provided comic relief as a bored and restless teenager/young man in rural Ireland while Pato was a little more worldly/ambitious and had left his homeland for work. They were both brilliant. Marty Rea’s delivery of a letter that he wrote Maureen at the start of the second act was a poignant touching sequence that earned him a roaring round of applause and even some vocal cheers. It was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen.

As I was gearing up to see the play, I did my homework on the original and read the reviews. I wished, wished, wished that I saw the original but at the same time, I think that as an ignorant teenage, I would not have been able to take it for more than anything that what I saw at face value. I wouldn’t have had the questions I still have or felt the emotion I still feel.

The production just arrived in Los Angeles for its first leg of the US and world tour, and you can see all the locations here.

New Yorkers: it’s coming to BAM in January. Go, go, go see it! It premieres two days after I leave for Italy and honestly, if I had known, I would have stayed in New York a little longer just to see it again. What can I say? I love BAM. I love Martin McDonagh. It’s a win win as far as I am concerned.

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