Encore Michigan

Detroit Public’s ‘Beauty Queen of Leenane’ may be the perfect Irish play

Review May 04, 2019 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–“Rural Ireland,” wrote Martin McDonagh, the writer of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, “is romantic to everyone but its inhabitants.”

‘Tis true, of course. You can drive the inner country through villages filled with a mix of old and new dwellings, stop at pubs filled with atmosphere and history, get a bit of salmon or fish and chips, stop at a shop selling Irish linen, gas up and go. But you will have missed the silent screams of teenagers, and the anguished groans of broken-bodied grandmothers who haven’t seen their children or grandchildren in three months.

Martin Faranan McDonagh is an Irish-British playwright, screenwriter, producer, and director. He was born and brought up in London, the son of Irish parents. And he is among the most acclaimed living ‘Irish’ playwrights, and will rightly take his place in Irish literary history with O’Casey, Shaw and Wilde.

Because Beauty Queen, directed by Andrew Borba, is pretty near a perfect play. While other playwrights, in this reviewer’s opinion, tinker with the structure of a play with gimmicks to shake things up, I find those experiments are most often in service of trying to prop up a weak story without the discipline of a true arc.

Maureen Folan (Sarah Clare Corporandy) and her mother, Mag (Karen Sheridan), live in authentic Irish poverty in the town of Leenane. Mag is a cantankerous, self-absorbed, crusty, busted wheelbarrow of a 70-something mother. Maureen is a beleaguered daughter of 40, worn down from years of looking after Mag with virtually no support or help from her two sisters. Maureen is no kid, and still a virgin, and she has some of the same wanderlust and “what-if” sensibilities that she stirs into her daily tea with the milk and sugar.

Maureen is so deeply fed up with looking after Mag, who hardly ever gets out of her bathrobe and slippers, that she is openly hostile and nasty to her in a way that seems at first to be harsh and surprising. No respect at all for the Mam?

We come to learn that there is not so much a bond between the two women, but an interdependence and power struggle between them that will come to a head.

Maureen finds a glimmer of hope for her life in an evening spent with a man she has known for more than twenty years–Pato Dooley, played by Michael Brian Ogden. Pato is an emotional lottery ticket for Maureen.

Sheridan inhabits Mag with terrific authenticity, a woman so bereft of actual love that she comes across almost rodent-like, caring more about the temperature of her daily miserable porridge than anything to do with the daughter who is her lifeline. Corporandy is physically perfect for the role, but also nails the desperate angst of living her dead-end life with flashes of hope the audience believes might pull her out of the snake-pit of her shabby, isolated, dreary, dank life of tea and cheap biscuits. She even has to climb a steep often muddy hill every day just to get back to this hovel she calls home.

Indeed, the audience comes to participate in a way that I have witnessed before at The Detroit Public, and almost nowhere else in Michigan. Is it the material the DPT chooses that brings it out, or a club of regular opening night patrons? When Pato’s kid brother Ray (Michael Lopetrone) draws out a scene in which he may or may not leave a letter intended for Maureen with Mag, audience members are audibly gasping and wincing, and one even blurted, “Don’t do it!” It’s amusing.

Ogden and Lopetrone do not ever share the stage together, but their performances generate electricity in the story. Ogden manages to be the perfect version of dashing, in the eyes of Maureen anyway, though he is actually a lonely mechanic in his day job. McDonagh has written his character and dialogue brilliantly to give him an almost movie star draw in this play of bottom dwellers. Lopetrone’s Ray is authentically vapid as an early 20s lummox driven mostly by interest in skirts and drugs, but he’s also a wonderful comic foil.

Borba has done a tremendous job of leading the actors to find the funny in lines that don’t seem so on the page. Amelia Bransky created the quintessential poor Irish kitchen and sitting room. And accents (Irish plays are best with accents) were spot on 95% of the time.

Why is the play so perfect? Because despite its depiction of tragic people living tragic lives, doing tragic things, its funny without every trying to tell a joke. The truth of life is that interesting people and characters find humor wherever they can get it. They survive by snickering at the misery in misery’s face in their journey. McDonagh is also a superb writer of dialogue.

Beauty Queen falls into a genre of irish play I like to call a “make you want to kill yourself play.” But that speaks to the hopelessness of people who do terrible things out of desperation and darkness, and absence of hope. These plays often end in a down beat. And that’s okay because that’s the way life goes with such people, and there haven’t been that many happy endings among Ireland’s abject poor.

But telling their stories, and appreciating the humor while you absorb the tragedy, is what good playwriting is about.