Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Dramaworks

The small town in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland, called Leenane, is not a place where people really live. They merely exist, watching their lives dissipate. Nothing happens there, except boredom and waiting for the evening news on the telly. The "beauty queen" of the town is the angry, delusional spinster daughter, Maureen, of a savagely controlling mother, Mag, who are locked together in battle throughout the play. It is an interesting choice of properties by Dramaworks not only to conclude its most successful season ever (every play five stars by this "reviewer"), it also marks the end of its presence at the diminutive theatre on Banyan Blvd. Its next season begins on 11.11.11 at the newly renovated theatre on Clematis Street, with a larger stage, more seating, and new challenges.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh works best in the intimate setting of its present location, where the audience is closely caught up in the grimy, gritty substance of the play. Poor Maureen has been abandoned by her two sisters who long ago fled the town, escaping by marriage, leaving their younger sister, now 40, with caretaking responsibility for their 70- year old cantankerous, hypochondriac mother. The play opens ominously, a thunderstorm underway, Mag's face illuminated by the lightening, foreshadowing events to come. Mother and daughter confront each other, Mag with her complaints about the complan (meal supplement) and her porridge, Maureen angry that her mother continues to pour her urine from the bed pan down the kitchen sink. The "u-reyene" infection issue is brought up like a leitmotif throughout, part of the dark humor that shrouds the entire play. Maureen admits her fantasy of inviting an imaginary beau to their home, only if he likes to murder old women. Maureen's frustration and fury throughout is for the most part kept tightly under control but omnipresent.

Into every stalemated symbiotic relationship must come a game changer, and it is Pato Dooley, who had fled his hometown for London, but while visiting Leenane invites Maureen to a party where an unexpected flame is ignited between them. It is he who gives Maureen the ironic crowning of "the beauty queen of Leenane." When Maureen feels there is a chance to escape the prison of her surroundings and most particularly, her mother, the tension grows in the play as Mag stands in the way of her daughter's last chance at happiness.

Pato's brother Ray plays a go-between the two would be lovers, but he too is a victim of the town, a bored, restless young man, who can see his own bleak future there, and he impatiently fails to deliver the letter to Maureen that would have changed her life. As it is, that failure leads to other bleak consequences. The letter itself is delivered to the audience as an unforgettable monologue by Pato in the opening scene of Act II. As we have front row seats, Pato was looking in our eyes and I felt every word in my gut.

Appropriately, this last play of Dramaworks before the 11.11.11. opening of its new theatre was directed by Bill Hayes, the theater's cofounder. The play flows, never a dull moment, but always unsettling. It starts darkly and moves inexorably into tragedy. One is hardly aware of the skilled direction needed to bring this off, and hold the audience mesmerized in spite of the raw elements being presented.

Dramaworks also knows how to pick the most talented actors for its productions. Barbara Bradshaw who I thought was brilliant in Dramaworks' production of The Chairs is the perfect Mag Folan. I watched her eyes as Maureen spoke at times, Mag following every hurtful word, but at the same time, using those words as fodder to feed her own controlling revengefulness.

How Kati Brazda, who plays Maureen, could hold onto that anger in such a controlled way for two hours, but with flashes of brief happiness in the presence of Pato, is remarkable. I've known people like her in my own life, damaged people, trying to survive with their anger, but poorly. She was so real and utterly believable.

I already remarked that Pato's monologue letter to Maureen is one of the high points of the production, so impassionedly delivered by Blake DeLong who almost succeeded in rescuing poor Maureen. His sometimes bumbling, but always frustrated brother, Ray, is competently played by Kevin Kelly who articulates the simple but profound: "This bastard town will kill you."

My wife saw the original play on Broadway and her only complaint was the difficulty in understanding the thick Irish accents. Every word in this play must be heard and understood to make it successful theatre. To the credit of Dramaworks, they enlisted Lisa Morgan as a dialect and vocal coach for the play, the perfect Irish accent but with a clarity understandable to an American audience. Ann consequently thought it was a more enjoyable production than even the Broadway version.

Original music was written for the brief interludes in this production, Irish music of course, which just added to the enjoyment.

This is not a play for everyone, but it seems to be so fitting for Dramaworks' last at its present intimate location -- an exclamation point added to their artistic mission of "theatre to think about."