“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” @ Bluebird Arts

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” @ Bluebird Arts

Theater Review by Mary Crylen

3 out of 4 stars 

In Bluebird Arts third season, Luda Lopatina Solomon directs the harrowing work of Martin McDonagh in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. In County Galway, Ireland, on a big hill in a small house live the Folan women. Forty-year-old Maureen (Jaimelyn Gray) and her elderly iron-willed mother, Mag (Kate Harris), spend their days in endless rounds of petty insults and violent threats. Each vies for control of their isolated existence, but when an old family friend reappears and offers Maureen a chance at a new life, the once-benign relationship turns treacherous. The two women, bound by the ties of family, are driven by desperation and will do anything to survive. A 1996 Olivier Award nominee and 1996 four time Tony Awards winner, this intimate portrayal of family struggle, human behaviors and the nature of the Id is sure to have you leaving the theater in awe.

Jaimelyn Gray. Photo by: Dave Markowski

Playwright, screenwriter and film director, Martin McDonagh never disappoints with a wide ranging repertoire from contemporary plays encompassing Irish culture to the silver screen with such classics as In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). McDonagh delivers stylistically unapologetic humor and multi-faceted concepts through inventive story telling. Drama at its finest! The psychological aspects of this work evokes a complex empathy for Maureen (Gray) as we see her develop and warp. It is as if we see only a small fraction of what her life has been the past 40 years and builds up to this moment when we view the play. Age and responsibility reign in the forefront and reflects on what defines family and the sacrifices that family demands. The past clings to Maureen like a flea. It constantly nags of decisions made that have lead to the present tragic truth. Pato Dooley, a family friend, returns from abroad to represent a reminder of her past and potential future through two words- “beauty queen”. The term dictating an essence of vapid admiration, neglected dreams and yearning for youth. An additional reminder is the stark contrast between generations. The costume choices highlight this gap particularly between Maureen and Ray Dooley, Pato’s younger brother. Conservative sweaters of country living with bedraggled hair compared to Ray’s modern clothes and even Maureen’s new dress. A concept of potential lingers throughout this work in the dark cynical undertones that create a sense of emptiness. 

The space is naturally intimate with a black box performance, yet the set was so well constructed that it felt that the audience was a fly on the wall rather than too awkwardly close to the production that sometimes occurs in smaller theaters. The construction of black fabric between three panels of walls expands and rounds out the space. The detailed cobbled effect of the plastered walls and the support beams of wood aesthetically transports you to that lonely hill in Galway. While I would have liked a more varied musical representation, the supportive audio work of the TV, radio, and external weather sounds were executed nicely in creating a full experience. Set designers Caroline Grebner and Carl Ulaszek with help from Michael Zimmerman illustrates the simplicity and complexity of the Irish household with visual illustration. Faded greens and blues of the interior walls and worn textures of the furniture all added a worn touch. A well-worn and lived in home, so worn that it may be falling apart. The classic Irish saying embroidered on a decorative kitchen towel to the trinket plates hanging above the sink hit the nail on the head for key simple elements to any Irish household.

The believability of the relationships between the four character cast was incredibly compelling. Kate Harris navigates well the character of stubborn and needy matriarch Mag. The changeable attitudes of an elderly woman in need of companionship and control, yet fears of being alone is not an easy feat to convey. Similar to an ocean, Maureen and Mag’s relationship is like a riptide pulling them further away from the “shore” of societal change and shifts drastically into a hazardous undertow of repressed anger pulling the audience along with it. Extremely emotive performances, particularly Gray’s portrayal of Maureen’s stifled frustrations of years being her mother’s caretaker. Clenched fists and tight facial expressions are the physical representation, but the dismay and unhinged psyche emotes from the eyes. Physical meets psychological. A further example is Kirk Anderson, fight choreographer, who marries blocking with choreography in this piece. The verbal altercations mimics the fluidity of the physical ones. This directional choice breathes reality and weight. Truly, this performance will leave you stunned. 

The Beauty Queen of Leenane will be running at the Athenaeum Theatre now through March 25, 2017. Performances are Thursday-Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets available through http://athenaeumtheatre.org/ or their box office 773-935-6875

For more information about Bluebird Arts call 773.526.3628 or visit them online at www.bluebirdarts.org


Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!