Playwright Martin McDonagh’s bleak and dour black tragi-comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane is alive and well in its thrilling current production at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre. Under the superlative direction of Jeremy Skidmore (who directed what I considered the best production of the past season, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo again at Round House Theatre), this play continually catches the audience by surprise with its deft pacing, repeated themes, and unexpected twists and turns. Director Skidmore and his talented intimate ensemble cast of four has an instinctive and very specialized understanding of this Irish milieu – filled with beautiful natural vistas, yet constricting economic day-to-day banality replete with sentimental platitudes and mundane patterns – set against the dynamics of stubborn survivors eking out their existence by marking their days with ruminations, regret, and accusations. Skidmore lulls one into the familiar and colloquial world of domineering matriarch Mag Folan and her quixotic daughter Maureen Folan – only to take one unawares into a word of verbal and physical cruelty.
McDonagh has alway been the ultimate tease and provocateur of the theatre, and it is obvious that he relishes manipulating the audience by subverting conventional expectations at every turn.This play is expertly constructed yet McDonagh only uses this supreme gift of storytelling as a springboard to make his writing a triumph of style that will evoke a phantasmagoria of reactions from his audience. Skidmore ably utilizes this approach and achieves a spellbinding fusion of the conventional and the brutally harsh to create an almost surreal style and tone.
The claustrophobic and stifling co-dependence of the querulous, yet bitterly servile daughter, is played searingly by Kimberly Gilbert (Maureen Folan). Gilbert has a raw intensity and vivid stage presence that steals the spotlight in all scenes – although this is very fine ensemble playing. The scene where she parades her night of passion in front of her shocked mother and her lover is a textbook class lesson in acting. No less amazing is the wonderful Sarah Marshall (Mag Folan) as the domineering and controlling mother. Marshall holds the audience’s attention with the most minimal physical movement – while sitting in her rocking chair smiling with a sly leer or lying prone on the floor. Marshall is especially effective in her sparring scenes with daughter Gilbert. Todd Scofield underplays beautifully with sincerity and an air of earthy directness as the suitor (Pato Dooley), and just the right tone of impatience, indignation, and exasperation is portrayed by Joe Mallon as Pato’s brother (Ray Dooley).
Scenic Designer Tony Cisek again works his magic with a rustic Irish dwelling compete with stone fence and hedge. Costumes by Frank Labovitz are appropriately dowdy and careworn. The Lighting Design by Dan Covey is meticulous and the Sound Design by Eric Shimelonis is effectively alarming and unsettling. Authenticity is the hallmark of this production, so special mention must be given to the dialect coaching of Leigh Wilson Smiley.
Round House Theatre’s production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane will linger in your mind long after it is over.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane plays through September 15, 2013 at Round House Theatre Bethesda – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.