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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Savage Beauty

Marty Rea and Aisling O'Sullivan. Photo: Aaron Monaghan
By Brian Scott Lipton

I was recently in a restaurant where a baby shower was taking place, the young mother-to-be beaming at the center of a table festooned with balloons proclaiming “It’s a Girl.” I was tempted to ask her if she’d ever gone to the theater.

Obviously, many mothers and daughters have long and happy relationships. It’s just that you don’t see them that often on the stage. In fact, many of the 20th century’s greatest playwrights have shone their spotlight all too brightly on this most complex and difficult of familial situations. Take Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, where the self-sufficient Amanda Wingfield gets repeatedly frustrated with her handicapped, painfully shy daughter Laura (“Oh! I felt so weak I could barely keep on my feet! I had to sit down while they got me a glass of water! Fifty dollars’ tuition, all of our plans—my hopes and ambitions for you—just gone up the spout, just gone up the spout like that.”) to Marsha Norman’s devastating “’Night Mother,” where mom Thelma faces, not always effectively or politely, the possibility of depressed daughter Jessie committing suicide.

More recently, we’ve witnessed Tracy Letts’ devastating August Osage County, during which eldest daughter Barbara finally loses her patience after one of her drug-addicted mother Violet’s nastiest outbursts, tackling her to the ground and loudly announcing what she erroneously believes is a now-permanent shift in their power dynamic. (“You don’t get it: I’m in charge now!”)

And then there’s perhaps the most toxic of all mother-daughter relationships—the one between elderly Mag Folan and her 40-year-old spinster daughter Maureen in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a Druid production at the BAM Harvey Theater from January 11 to February 5.

These lonely ladies spar from practically the second the play opens, as Maureen reenters the small Irish cottage in which the pair uneasily cohabitate and Mag tries to guilt her daughter into making her tea and porridge. But that’s just one small section of this ghastly pas de deux (well, more accurately, pas de quatre) in which each woman subtly (and not subtly) attempts to intimidate and manipulate the other through fear, guilt, and deceit.

Marie Mullen. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
Indeed, in Leenane, that cup of tea (Complan) is eventually served with a heaping tablespoon of anger and stirrer full of bitterness. “Drink ahead, I said! You had room enough to be spouting your lies about Ray Dooley had no message! Did I not meet him on the road beyond as he was going? The lies of you. The whole of that Complan you’ll drink now, and suck the lumps down too, and whatever’s left you haven’t drank, it is over your head I will be emptying it, and you know well enough I mean it!” shouts Maureen after learning about one of Mag’s “omissions.”

If Mag, who obviously fears being abandoned and does whatever she can to keep Maureen home, initially seems the more loathsome of the two women, McDonagh makes sure the scales are balanced. In one vile exchange, Maureen threatens to put her mother in a nursing home after Mag complains about not hearing the radio (and one wouldn’t be surprised to see a final scene set in such a place.)

“It’s a home for deaf people I’ll have to be putting you in soon. (Pause.) And it isn’t cod in butter sauce you’ll be getting in there. No. Not by a long chalk. Oul beans on toast or something is all you’ll be getting in there. If you’re lucky. And then if you don’t eat it, they’ll give you a good kick, or maybe a punch.”

But bickering and sniping are just part of McDonagh’s arsenal. In this darkest of comedies, words soon beget almost unimaginable actions and cruelties (though, in McDonagh’s clever hands, basically foreshadowed), seemingly unforgivable—and yet in their own way, sadly understandable. These two women are trapped, not just in a small house, but by their own disappointments in life and each other with only the slimmest (and possibly grimmest) chances of escape, and the desire to use any weapon to break down the barricades.

For many theatergoers, the thrust-and-parry of Beauty Queen may remind them of adolescence, a time when the mother-daughter tango can feel like a dance of death. For others, the play is truly foreign—both to their actual homeland and their experience. And for a select few, sadly, it’s simply a case of art imitating life.

So to that woman in the restaurant—I hope your balloon never bursts!

The Beauty Queen of Leenane comes to the BAM Harvey Theater January 11—February 5, and great tickets are still available.

Brian Scott Lipton is a noted entertainment writer in New York City whose work has appeared recently in Forbes, IN New York, and WHERE.

1 comment:

  1. are ye performing any other venues in ny area?

    ReplyDelete