Martin McDonagh is best known for plays like The Pillowman and films like In Bruges, which mix over-the-top violence with laugh-out-loud banter. But he began his career writing very Irish plays about Ireland, starting with the first in his Leenane trilogy, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a funny and crushing production of which is now at the BAM Harvey Theater (through February 5).
McDonagh famously drafted seven plays in nine months in 1994, which formed his entire oeuvre for the next decade (until his Oscar-winning short Six Shooter, in 2005). Since then, his work has dealt with other topics, especially the function of violence in art and society, but at first McDonagh’s Tarantino-reminiscent interest in the ways people hurt each other seemed pegged specifically to his heritage. (He was born and raised in London, but his parents were Irish immigrants who returned home after he was born.)
In The Cripple of Inishmaan, the first play in McDonagh’s Aran Islands trilogy, first performed in 1997 (and produced on Broadway in 2014 with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead), the title character seems to embody the play’s fading Emerald Isle: an economically crippled country with no work and little hope. Similarly, the daughter, Maureen, at the center of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, not seen until now in New York in almost two decades, also embodies something about how McDonagh views the Irish experience.
The play is set in the title’s remote Killary Harbor town, in a rustic house designed at BAM by Francis F. O’Connor, where dark walls hold up a faded painting of the Virgin Mary. It’s here that the aging Connemaran of the title lives. She’s meant to be a recognizable type: yearning, unfulfilled, a 40-year-old virgin dreaming of a new life without her demanding mother, to whose care she’s begrudgingly given her life. It’s the mother who bears the allegorical weight of her country: oppressive, draining, smothering the one child who hasn’t run far away from her, driving her to violence and cruelty, creating a monster in her own image. (You might even stretch this into a commentary on relations between Ireland and Northern Ireland.)
The Galway-based Druid Theatre Company, which staged the play’s premiere in 1996 and has since enjoyed a fruitful artistic relationship with McDonagh, staged this revival, imported by BAM for its winter/spring season. Cofounder Garry Hynes directs her fellow cofounder, Marie Mullen, who plays the old woman, Mag. This all has a delicious metafictional parallel to the play, as the daughter horrifyingly starts to transform into her mother, and Mullen originated the role of Maureen almost 20 years ago.
Aisling O’Sullivan has now inherited the part, and she shows off the breadth of her skill. It’s a complex role, marinating in fury, luxuriating in fortune, and ending in DuBois-like madness; O’Sullivan moves through the ire, excitement, defeat, and insanity with devastating legato. Marty Rea, as Maureen’s love interest, Pato, has a giddy and awkward boyish charm that makes him more likable and thus amplifies the tragedy. As Ray, Pato’s brother and the play’s comic relief, Aaron Monoghan got many laughs but often by falling back on a caricature of Irishness, with a thick brogue that singsong-ed every line.
Mullen, on the other hand, is both larger than life and devastatingly human. The overbearing mother is a familiar theatrical trope, present in the great American classics from The Glass Menagerie to A Long Day’s Journey into Night, and Mullen understands the way McDonagh both embraces and plays on that tradition. Together they craft a character who’s pitiful yet contemptible, easily wounded when not feigning victimhood; she’s wickedly stifling, comically frank, controlling, ungrateful and uncharitable. She dumps her bedpan into the kitchen sink for just the mean-spirited satisfaction of pissing there, and when her daughter calls her out for it, Mag deflects the blame, rushing to her room to produce humiliating, unrelated papers.
In the end, the old woman gets her comeuppance. McDonagh applies Chekhov’s advice about guns to a fireplace poker—which shows you not only what he thinks about his characters, but what he thinks about Ireland.
Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs through February 5 at the BAM Harvey Theater.