They don't call it the Land of Ire for nothing. While the stereotype of redheaded leprechauns with a short fuse chugging brew at the end of a rainbow is intentionally abandoned in Martin McDonagh's cold and clever Irish plays, his characters, particularly the lonely middle-aged daughter in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, fit into that tempestuous mold quite comfortably. Her long blonde mane and homely demeanor may suggest a modest woman with a meek sensibility, but it isn't long before McDonagh peels back the exterior to reveal a raging cauldron of emotions boiling inside Miss Maureen Folan.
As the near-legend has it, McDonagh himself is something of a wonder. Rumors are that he churned out the script for Leenane in just eight days at the age of 26, the first in a trilogy that includes Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, and The Lonesome West. Leenane premiered in Ireland in early 1996, and later garnered a slew of Tony Awards and nominations in 1998. And as The Keegan Theatre has built up their Irish repertoire over the past nine years, they have acquired the kind of refined taste and skill of a seasoned company who knows how to effectively deliver such a dark and salty drama.
There's always a misty air of melancholy that settles underneath McDonagh's callous words and bereft characters, and Leenane's sad story begins and ends with a life lived in quiet desperation. In Leenane, a small country town in Connemara, County Galway, Maureen is 40 years old and dotes on her elderly mother, a hypercritical, manipulative old buzzard with a mélange of ailments. Aside from the obvious resentment and hostility the two bear toward each other, Maureen is still a virgin, and when the opportunity finally arrives to free her from passive-aggressive hell, her future is sealed by the insecurities of her paranoid mother.
With haunting strains of Psycho and Mommie Dearest, McDonagh hurls his heroine toward a final act of vengeance that is depicted with frosty precision by Nanna Ingvarsson. Ingvarsson is a distant and detached Maureen who elicits a disturbing sympathy for her isolated mentality, and she is swept off her feet by Scott Graham as Irishman Pato Dooley. Graham's is a complete portrait painted with all the essence of a gentleman, and he opens the second act with a delightfully charming monologue that sets the tone for McDonagh's weird and wistful turn of events.
But far and away, it is Linda High who runs this show with her stark portrayal of a rough old bird who barks out orders with a menacing frown. High is an authentic Mag Folan, and the presence of her abusive mother lingers long after her eerie rocking chair stops creaking. It's an abrasive performance filled with pathos and humor that is as dehydrated as the chamber pot she empties into the kitchen sink.
Mark A. Rhea directs with a heavy hand, leaving his fingerprints all over the production, from eternal glares before scene changes to quirky touches in staging. His interpretations are always literal, and the result is evident in the pregnant pauses and meticulous dialects that color his work.
Set designer George Lucas masterfully exhibits the bleak interior of a depressed farm cottage, while Dan Martin's moody, ominous lighting lends a sort of mythical ambience to the proceedings. McDonagh ultimately constructs The Beauty Queen of Leenane as a long drive on a winding, rocky road up the side of a mountain: the climb bruises and batters your car while you're safely tucked inside. It's an exciting, suspenseful ascent to the top, yet once you're there, you still can't ignore that queasy, uneasy feeling that's settled into the pit of your stomach.