Bedraggled, grubby, and beautiful

Third Rail's 'Beauty Queen of Leenane' revels in McDonagh's great, grim humor

When first we hear the phrase “the beauty queen of Leenane” in Martin McDonagh’s mid-1990s play of that name, the moment is rich with irony and ambiguity. By this point we’ve spent some time with Maureen, seen how trapped she is in a bitterly dysfunctional relationship with her mother, how bedraggled she is by her thankless toil and loveless life, how she yearns for some romantic completion beyond the mere few kisses she’s had in her 40 years.

But then there is Pato Dooley, in her kitchen late one night, joshing and flirting, making his intentions clear.

Trying to explain why he’d never before shown an interest in her, Pato says he’d always thought who was he to approach “the beauty queen of Leenane.”

At this point in the grubby-looking but brilliantly executed Third Rail Rep production that opened last Friday in the Winningstad Theatre, actress Maureen Porter’s face registers a perfect mixture of surprise, pleasure, disbelief, caution and suspicion. Is he being facetious and mean? Or is he the answer to a life of pain and longing?

Kupper and Porter: a surprise romance. Photo: Owen Carey

Kupper and Porter: a surprise romance. Photo: Owen Carey

Neither, as it turns out. Pato is sincere, seeking a salve to his own loneliness. But, unsurprisingly, this fledgling romance faces an impediment.

And in the morning, that impediment — a Gorgon in a pink robe — waddles into the kitchen and pours a night’s pot of piss into the sink.

Such are the manners of Maureen’s mother, Mag. And while the plot of Beauty Queen turns on the awkward arc of Maureen’s relationship with Pato, the play’s center is the pitched battle/protracted war going on between Maureen and Mag. Whether or not it involves a beauty queen, the conflict is not a pretty one.

But you might’ve guessed as much if you’ve been in this neck of the woods before. McDonagh, most widely known for his 2008 film In Bruges, has staked out a stage niche with a distinctive style of gleefully dark storytelling. Third Rail has taken us here before, in 2006 with The Lonesome West and 2009 with A Skull in Connemara, which along with Beauty Queen are known as the Leenane Trilogy — or sometimes the Connemara Trilogy, for the district in western Ireland where all three are set. They’ve been memorable visits, all. (Third Rail will present a “Leenane Day” on Sunday, June 15, bringing back the casts of the previous productions for readings following the Beauty Queen matinee.)

All three plays share a great, grim humor about the isolation and poverty of the region and the violent propensities that seem to result. But the most essential common thread is McDonagh’s dyspeptic view of family, which he presents as an inescapable snake pit.

Third Rail’s penchant for both the outlandishly comic and the psychologically astute makes this ideal material, and the chief reason (among several) to put this show on your must-see list is the marvelously calibrated, multifaceted performance from Porter, a longtime company stalwart. She delivers some choice moments, such as flailing awkwardly from the shock of Pato’s first kiss, or talking brazenly of sex to dismay her mother. But what’s really so affecting is the precise yet low-key way she moves among the character’s mercurial moods and manners — now caustic, now fragile, now sanguine, now frightfully cold — always with the subtlest hints of submerged memory and emotion. On a certain level, what’s going on with Maureen (the character) seems clear; on another level, mysterious, maybe unfathomable.

As Maureen’s formidable opponent, Jayne Taini surely holds her own, imbuing Mag with a mixture of childish self-centeredness and guile, affected amiability and sly malevolence. Portland theatergoers have seen Taini as a fearsome hag before, at Portland Center Stage a few years ago as Sister Aloysius in Doubt and, to a lesser extent, as a racist matriarch in Snow Falling on Cedars. Here, she’s strangely repulsive and endearing at once, a neckless lump in wrinkled house clothes, dingy slippers and argyle socks, a twinkle in her eye as she whines, wheedles and manipulates Maureen into a life of near-servitude and stasis.

Threatening to upset this rotten-apple cart is the arrival of Pato, back for a long weekend in the picturesque but economically desolate Leenane, from London, where he’s reluctantly moved for work. Damon Kupper lends the shy yet forthright Pato a heartfelt sweetness, and Rolland Walsh is entertainingly scatterbrained as Ray, Pato’s younger brother/messenger. (Kudos, also, to Bobby Brewer-Wallin and Curt Enderle for the tellingly dreary costume and scenic designs, respectively.)

Things are so bad on the home front that Maureen talks openly about daydreaming of her mother’s murder, and one of the more fascinating things about the play is the way it compels us to wonder at the history of these two: What cycle of petty personal crimes and recriminations could have brought them to this level of open hostility? (“You’re old and you’re stupid and you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, so  shut up and eat your porridge!” Maureen barks early on.) And what hidden, desperate dynamic keeps them together on this misery-go-round of cruelty and schadenfreude?

From the outset, our sympathies are with Maureen. Her angry resentments seem justified in the light of Mag’s obvious laziness and dishonesty. But McDonagh slowly undermines, or at least complicates, our initial assumptions about these characters and their culpability, leading up to an especially heated coup de theatre.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane often is called a black comedy. But that brings to mind the wag who remarked on what a puzzling term that is: the shows it’s applied to aren’t very funny and never have any black people in them. Beauty Queen is funny, but in such a sardonic fashion that “comedy” still doesn’t seem to fit. In certain eras of theater, if a play ended with a wedding, it was a comedy; if it ended with a death, it was a tragedy. Suffice it to say that McDonagh wants to have it both ways.


Third Rail’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues in the Winningstad Theatre through June 22. Ticket and schedule information here.



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