Unwinding family in Beauty Queen

By David Kenney

The expression “like mother, like daughter” takes the form of a ripped up family photo in Alberta Theatre Projects’ The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Martin McDonagh’s play examines the tie that binds, a bind that sometimes unwinds family members. Set in a stone hovel in Ireland, the story circles around the frazzled Maureen (Kate Hennig) and her co-dependent conniving mother Mag (Joyce Doolittle). In 40 years, Maureen has only kissed two boys, and for the last 20 years, she’s been a slave for the walking mononucleosis Mag. It would be the typical couch potato-submissive marriage relationship, except it involves a parent and her child.

Mag nags Maureen ceaselessly for her tea, biscuits and porridge. Maureen submits in a tantrum with idle threats of defiance and leaving. Then one day her reason to go arrives.

Hyperactive neighbor Ray (Jeff Lawson) invites Mag and Maureen to a party. Maureen attends, returning with Pato (Dennis Fitzgerald) for a roll in the hay. Unwilling to change, Mag is bent on halting any chance of love for Maureen. A match follows for whoever can outfox the other the most.

Doolittle is especially convincing as the crotchety hag Mag. Clad in a beige housecoat, red mesh beret and gray rubber boots, she is the anti-grandma. Her whining pleas for everything based on her "yerine infection" helplessness provide many comic moments. Every stunted action and dour expression further sells her character’s deviousness.

Propelling Doolittle’s Mag is Hennig’s parallel performance. As the neurotic Maureen, Hennig’s timing and chemistry with Doolittle is eerily close. Their interchangeable mother/daughter roles are played almost effortlessly, as both Doolittle and Hennig do an incredible job of gathering pathos for characters that don’t deserve it. Their emotionally incestuous relationship is the play’s spine, which rarely bends.

The play’s only wobbly element is Fitzgerald’s fence-sitting portrayal of Pato. As Maureen’s love interest, one would expect some magnetism between the two. Fitzgerald’s Pato simply seems awkward in love, maybe even as McDonagh intended. Unfortunately, the much-needed spark barely flickers, especially
during his monologue love-letter. More betrayal of emotion would intensify and focus Maureen and Mag’s plight and authenticate Pato’s love.

Fortunately, Fitzgerald’s play-cousin Lawson is a comic-relief treat. His booming enthusiasm steals many scenes and leaves the audience waiting for his next appearance. Blunder after blunder, Lawson lightens the air and deflates this emotional balloon.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is numbing, laughable and ultimately appealing to an older audience. Sadly and justly, many funny moments are the reverse, amplifying the play’s foul mood. Director Bob White understands this tragic-comedy and lays out a great interpretation. The themes of country and family loyalty are clear and fragrant as Mag’s wee down the kitchen sink.

A sink is not usually a urinal, but likewise, as The Beauty Queen of Leenane proves, home is not necessarily where the heart is.

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