We know that profundities are strewn throughout the small talk that comprises most of our conversations, and what little self-awareness we cultivate these days probably goes to trying to pluck any such clues out of it. Thus does our make-believe contentedness continue.
Playwrights long ago learned to burnish such talk for its cumulative power, and Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane, written in 1996, takes place in an oppressively shabby Connemara kitchen where mother and daughter verbally tangle over such seeming inanities as the lumpiness of Mom’s energy drink and her reluctance to use hot enough water to smooth it.
With his first play out, McDonagh waded into the peat-burning hovels that had become so popular in Irish plays, but took a scalpel of black humor to the setup, giving us four characters so bounded by self-imposed limitations that their attempts to meaningfully connect with one another go awry at every turn.
Matthew Penn’s production currently on stage at Shakespeare & Company is a delightful, satisfying realization of the piece, with a quartet of actors taking unbridled (but fully character-realized) glee in pursuing this depressing, hilarious story to its inevitable end.
As the chair-bound matriarch, company founder Tina Packer gives us Mag, the mother, in the aspect of a George Booth cartoon gone terribly wrong. Her hair, an important plot element, is a colorless thatch of chaos. Her shapeless dress ends not far enough below the knee to conceal something terribly wrong with her thickly stockinged legs. When she opens her mouth to complain, the voice that emerges sounds like shrill construction equipment.
And Packer is working opposite company star Elizabeth Aspenlieder as the daughter, Maureen. Aspenlieder has inhabited enough disparate characters over the years to make her versatility verge on the unremarkable, but the two together give enough scary depth to the relationship that you will rush out and patch up any quarrel you’ve ever had with your own mom.
Into this claustrophobia come the Dooley brothers. Ray (Edmund Donovan), the younger, is a hyperkinetic 20-year-old on a mission to invite Maureen to party where his visiting older brother will be on hand. Mag’s selfish deviousness escalates as she tries to conceal the invitation; the bonds of Maureen’s self-repression unravel as she confronts this treachery. You know you shouldn’t be laughing at this. You can’t not laugh.
When Pato Dooley arrives, it’s on the arm of a happy Maureen. He’s escorted her back from the party with a surprisingly noble amorousness on his mind. As Delia Murphy’s classic song “The Spinning Wheel” plays on a scratchy radio, suggesting a parallel turn of events, Maureen enjoys the prospect of enough happiness to set her up for a knockdown when her mother discovers daughter and lover the morning after.
David Sedgwick brings a needed gravitas to the role of Pato, a believable contrast to Donovan’s Ray and the emotional anchor around which the rest of the cast eddies. Although we meet Pato as he’s high-spiritedly seeking a hookup, we intuit that he’s no fly-by-night—which is important, because Pato is about to journey to America in search of a better job, and the second act begins with Sedgwick’s masterful performance of the show’s celebrated monologue, his recitation of a letter exhorting Maureen to join him.
The question that torments us next: Will the letter make it through the fickle gauntlet of Ray and Mag? McDonagh gives us a brilliant scene during which you’ll come as close as you ever will to yelling at the characters, during which Donovan’s loose-limbed loopiness is a painful joy to behold.
If the script lapses into a few predictably melodramatic tropes at the end, it’s no fault of the cast, who turn in one of the finest ensemble performances I’ve seen in a very long time. Patrick Brennan’s spare set conjures bleakness with deft strokes of color and wood, and Alex Sovronsky’s sound design will convince you that it’s a working kitchen. Be sure you make plans to see any surviving parents after you see this show. No, wait: Don’t.