The codependent drama between Mag Follan and her daughter, Maureen — the suffocating harridan and the trapped romantic — stands for more than family dysfunction in Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”
These two women, who have trapped each other in the boondocks of western Ireland, represent for McDonagh the competing visions of stasis and hope in his homeland. Growing up in London, the Irish playwright wrote from a conflicted heart about his ancestral soil, a point that we pick up in Theatre Pro Rata’s staging of “Beauty Queen,” which opened Friday at Park Square’s Boss Stage.
Director Carin Bratlie Wethern’s production doesn’t mine the deep nuances of emotion and nature that lace McDonagh’s script. The staging, though, is sufficient to serve McDonagh’s melancholy rumination, and it provides actor Sally Wingert a turn as Mag Follan, one of theater’s great hags.
McDonagh’s 1996 play has always felt as if he brought the ingredients of “The Glass Menagerie” to western Ireland and flipped the motivations of his two main women. Unlike Amanda Wingfield, Mag Follan holds her daughter in a suffocating grip. Maureen longs for someone to take her away from the fetid hovel she shares with her mother.
Amid their co-abusive relationship, an old acquaintance, the expatriate Pato Dooley, appears. This gentleman caller is indeed welcomed by Maureen. He fills her head with stories of his life in London and his visions of perhaps even making it to America. The fates of Pato and Maureen are the stakes of McDonagh’s play.
Eye of the Storm Theatre Company did a devastatingly beautiful 2000 production of “Beauty Queen.” Claudia Wilkens headed a top-shelf cast that included J.C. Cutler as Pato, the passionate Irishman caught between his love and hate for home. Wilkens gave a natural, understated menace to Mag — gorgeously evil like a character out of Pinter.
Wingert is more antic in her vision of Mag — a performance that feels consciously sculpted. Her voice has the scratchy lilt of a leprechaun — a dimension of dotty humor and sly manipulation. Stooped, thin and draped in dreary housedresses that she wears like sacks, Wingert looks like an Appalachian granny who is more cunning than her pleading image suggests. There’s almost a game Mag and Maureen recognize in each other.
It is a game of which Maureen has grown most weary. Actor Amber Bjork reveals in this plain and unhappy character a futility and bitterness. In Pato, she senses a way out, although her self-image (Ireland’s self-image?) works against her own dreams.
Grant Henderson’s Pato does not catch the production’s spirit. The actor and director haven’t fully investigated the longings of a character who is closest to McDonagh’s heart. This is the guy who would redeem Maureen, who sees her as a beauty queen. There should be a desperate passion about him, something that burns in his eyes. It does not. Taylor Evans is fine in the role of Pato’s younger brother, Ray.
One is reminded with another look at “Beauty Queen” how sharp McDonagh was, as a 24-year-old writer inspired by Australian daytime TV. The play remains one of his very best, despite some false steps evident in Pro Rata’s production.
But Bratlie Wethern’s staging is good enough, and good enough gets a lot done when the play is this fine.