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Age Before Beauty

Spotlighters Revives McDonagh's Dated Debut

Laura Gifford (top) and Anne B. Mulligan

By Jack Purdy | Posted 4/25/2001

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Martin McDonagh

The first play from now-prolific Irish wunderkind Martin McDonagh, 1996's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, scooped up three Tony awards during its Broadway run. And while the Spotlighters gives this tale of family hatred and frustrated sexuality in County Galway a polished rendering, the play seems to be set in another era--as if particularly nasty characters created by Victorian-era Irish playwright John Millington Synge suddenly had access to cars and televisions. Leenane's Ireland is one that's all but vanished now as the new "Celtic tiger" economy roars. One of the play's two male characters laments that he has to go to England to find work; in real modern-day Ireland, jobs go begging. McDonagh's Emerald Isle existed only in the playwright's imagination by the time he wrote his debut.

But give him his due. With that imagination, he created one of the most spiteful, selfish characters in modern drama. Mag Folan, portrayed with nasty gusto in the Spotlighters production by Anne B. Mulligan, is an old woman who expects her 40-year-old daughter, Maureen (Laura Gifford), to cook her porridge, turn the radio and television on and off, and care for the chickens on their isolated farm outside the village of Leenane. Mag is one of those people who never gives an order--she whimpers and whines to get her way, complaining about her ailments and feigning a creeping senility that masks a crafty, manipulative mind.

Neither of Mag's two married daughters wants anything to do with her--"not even for a half-day on Christmas," says poor Maureen, a spinster who's only kissed two men in her life. "Two too many," says mother Mag. When local boy Pato Dooley (Mark Steckbeck) returns from his construction job in London for a family party, Maureen thinks maybe her life could take a glorious turn, but Mag is willing to do anything--even dig up a long-buried incident in Maureen's past--to try and keep her daughter bound to her.

McDonagh tells his story with large doses of the bitter humor that has so long characterized the Irish, and director Barry Feinstein's cast digs into that humor with gusto. Gifford's Maureen is a worthy sparring partner for Mag, the two flailing at each other in impotent hatred. Steckbeck's Pato is a tenderhearted aging bachelor who nonetheless has the spark of ambition in him. The play's weakest character, Pato's delinquent younger brother Ray (Morgan Stanton), seems to have wandered in from a lesser Sam Shepard play, existing only to set particular events in motion. Stanton, excellent in The Complete History of America (abridged) at Fells Point Corner Theatre earlier this season, is uncertain in his characterization and accent.

But then, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is an uncertain work, one in which large doses of wit are used to perpetuate some of the broadest, oldest stereotypes about the Irish. It's a curiously dated work from a definitely talented playwright.

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