"May you be half an hour in Heaven before the Devil knows you're dead." — Irish proverb
On the rustic, ramshackle set of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a plaque bearing this ancient line of exquisite Irish poetry hangs on the wall like a traditional blessing of the home and hearth. And it encapsulates the two pendulum points that the entire play oscillates between: creeping dread and mordant mirth.
If there is a hell, three-quarters of this cast will probably end up there. The play is set in the early 1990s, in the dilapidated kitchen of a functional hovel in the village of Leenane in western Ireland, where Mag Folan (Barbara Bradshaw) and her spinster daughter, Maureen (Kati Brazda), share a life of perpetual, acrid quarreling. Mag is a calculating shrew with a self-professed litany of physical ailments, barking orders at Maureen from her sedentary position in front of the television. Maureen is a homely 40-year-old virgin, confined to an existence of slavish service to her perfectly capable mother, from adjusting the radio to serving her morning meal of lumpy porridge and Complan (which Wikipedia tells me is a dietary supplement).
The Beauty Queen of Leenane, presented through June 19 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Call 561-514-4042, or click here.
They lie to each other with regularity, each one's malicious fib a knife-stab to the other's mental health. They're not exactly the Beales of Grey Gardens yet, but you get the impression that such a degeneration isn't far off: Mag's morning routine involves emptying her portable latrine into the kitchen sink.
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The Folans' unhealthy cohabitation is threatened when a local neighbor, Pato Dooley (Kevin Kelly), takes a shine to Maureen at a party on the eve of his work relocation to England and ends up spending the night at her house. Gentleman callers are anathema to Mag, whose raison d'être is the destruction of her daughter's happiness. Seeing that a romance may be developing, Mag drops a game-changing, act-one-ending bombshell: that Maureen was institutionalized in her 20s after scalding her mother's hand in a mental breakdown and that Mag has been required to look after her, not the other way around, ever since.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane was McDonagh's debut play, and like most of his subsequent work — The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and A Behanding in Spokane, which have all enjoyed South Florida revivals in recent years — it thrives on an uneasy tension of shocking humor and bleak violence, perpetrated by desperate people with nothing to lose. McDonagh's protagonists often seem to have been at the end of their ropes for so long they're barely holding on, waiting for the collapse when they let go. Maureen regularly jokes about murdering Mag (humor that changes its tone once we learn about Maureen's past), but violence also colors the periphery of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, where talk of a serial killer darkens the local news. Even the play's fourth character, Pato's younger brother, Ray (Blake DeLong), shows the characteristics of a budding psychopath, frolicking around the Folans' abode while brandishing a fireplace poker like a murder weapon. We don't know precisely how these characters will spiral, only that it will end in tragedy.
It's a delight, as always, to watch Barbara Bradshaw electrify a stage, even in — nay, especially in — a role as odious as Mag Folan. It's a pleasure to watch her gears of manipulation turn in the play's best scene, in which Ray has come to the house to hand-deliver an important letter from Pato (who is in England) to Maureen. But Maureen is not home, and we watch as Mag tries every trick in the book — very much like the devil on the wall plaque — to persuade Ray to leave the letter with her, where she will inevitably incinerate it in the fireplace. Refusing, an anxious Ray roams around the room, flipping the letter in his hands and tapping it nervously on any available surface. Though the action in the scene is entirely Ray's, we can't stop looking at the seated Bradshaw, whose eyes zero in, with radar precision, on the letter; she's like a salivating dog leering lustfully at the treat with which her owner nonchalantly toys.
For the most part, the rest of the players — all of them out-of-town talent — manage to keep up with Bradshaw, something that can't be said in many of the productions she stars in. As Ray, DeLong is the weakest link, mainly because he can't seem to retain his sonorous Irish accent (fuck becomes feck, and so forth) during the play's emotional apexes. But Brazda excels as the play's most tragic character, beautifully rendering Maureen's imbalanced, vulnerable psyche. She's the tortured pulse of this uncomfortable rogues' gallery of pained people; she too may be careening toward a lake of fire, but we hope that, when her time comes, the devil won't know she's dead.