Beth Wilmurt (left) as Maureen, Rod Gnapp (center) as Pato and Joy Carlin as Mag star in Martin McDongah’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Joseph Salazar’s Ray watches telly while Carlin’s Mag waits for the news. Photos by Kevin Berne
Watching Joy Carlin work her magic Mag Folan in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the epitome of theatrical delight. Here you have one of the great Bay Area actors offering a sly, darkly humorous, even compassionate portrayal of a woman who could easily be described as a nightmare. Carlin, like the character she’s playing, appears to be a lovely older woman. But perhaps unlike Carlin, Mag is something of a sociopath. And that’s a trait she’s passed along to the youngest of her three daughters, Maureen, played with sinewy gusto by Beth Wilmurt.
That mother-daughter relationship is the crux of Beauty Queen, and the source of its humor, its drama and its horror. Director Mark Jackson’s production for Marin Theatre Company etches that relationship with realism and a savory dash of melodrama. Neither Carlin nor Wilmurt is a scenery chewer, so everything they do comes from character and is directly invested in their mutual dependence/hatred. These marvelous actors create a finely detailed portrait of a mother and daughter that is so fraught, you flinch and still you can’t turn away.
McDonagh’s play (now 17 years on since its premiere in Ireland) is a soundly constructed dramatic work that puts on a good show, involves its audience and delivers something with heft and abundant laughs. It’s hard to ask for much more from a two-hour evening of theater. Set in a remote village in western Ireland, the action simply involves a needy, manipulative mother (she’s 70 but acts much older) and her 40-year-old spinster daughter who is stuck with care-taking duties and has never had much of a life of her own.
From the start, there’s something sinister in this little house – evoked by Nina Ball’s wall-less kitchen/living room set adrift on a stage full of cloudy vagueness and illuminated by York Kennedy’s precise light. Sweetness and light do not dwell here. While Maureen makes endless cups of tea, porridge and vitamin drinks for her carping mother, she jokes about decapitating the old woman and spitting down her neck. And for her part, mother dear wastes no time telling a potential suitor (the estimable Rod Gnapp as Pato Dooley) about her daughter’s stint in a mental institution.
Eventually, the play turns into a sort of Whatever Happened to Baby McJane?, but director Jackson and his excellent cast – which also includes the testy Joseph Salazar as Pato’s brother Ray – don’t go for sensationalism as much as cringe-inducing shock. McDonagh’s play really is a horror show, and when something as sweetly old-fashioned as delivering a love letter goes terribly awry, the results are particularly gory.
But it’s not just about the horror, either. There are interesting wrinkles with characters who may be more divorced from reality than they realize, and that gives the actors even more deliciously meaty moments to play.
The Irish accents, well, they come and they go, but even if they vanish, clarity remains. And really, the most extraordinary thing about this production is the tension between Wilmurt and Carlin, two ferociously good actors creating a mother-daughter bond that is palpable. And terrifying.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Martin McDongah’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues through June 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.