Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2003

Main Street Stage has come up with another powerful show that neatly utilizes their narrow storefront playing area. The Beauty Queen of Leenane takes place in a claustrophobic run-of-the-mill Irish cottage in the small village of Leenane in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland.

The play centers on the life of Maureen Folan (Stephanie Hedges), a 40-year-old virgin who is the sole caregiver to her 70 year-old mother Mag (Ruth Duncan). Two sisters have escaped into marriage and family life, but Maureen, with a history of mental illness, is trapped in a small, bleak cottage and in an overly dependent, seriously dysfunctional relationship with her mother.

In the course of the play, the Folan cottage is visited by the brothers Ray and Pato Dooley. Many years apart in age, Ray (Andrew Bemis) is a lumpen young man just coming of age with few work prospects and little ambition, while Pato (Michael Foster) is a 30-something construction worker fed up with having to live and work in England in order to earn a living wage. The glimmer of a romance sparks up, then sputters out between Maureen and Pato, with ultimately disastrous results.

The play rocketed playwright Martin McDonagh to fame at age 25 when it opened in the West End in 1996. By 1998 he became the first playwright since William Shakespeare to have four of his plays produced professionally in London in a single season. A school drop-out, McDonagh wrote “Beauty Queen” in just eight days.

Born in London, he has become known as a great Irish playwright in spite of the fact that his knowledge of life in the rural parts of western Ireland about which he writes is based on recollections from summer vacations and the tales told by his Galway-born father. Michael Billington of the Guardian stated that “[McDonagh’s] Ireland is based not on real experience of the place but on an almost postmodern recollection of Irish drama in the last century.” As foreigners, American audiences must be careful to bear this in mind while being romanced by the lilting pseudo-Irish-speak of McDonagh’s characters.

Director Frank LaFrazia has enabled his four actors to master this spoken language, which may or may not exist in real life. I was able to understand every word and was duly impressed by the actors’ abilities to maintain their accents throughout the play. Truly Irish ears might have been appalled, but I was content that everyone on stage sounded the same, which is seldom the case when American’s attempt any kind of foreign accent. Despite many strong production values, notably Jack Donahue’s appropriately dreary set which transforms the tunnel-like stage at Main Street into a prison-like home for Maureen and Mag, and Langdon C. Crawford’s seamless sound design, this production of “Beauty Queen” never quite builds the suspense necessary for a real sense of horror at the dénouement. This may be the fault of a less than convincing portrayal of Maureen by Hedges, or a slightly too spritely rendition of Mag by Duncan. The dynamic between mother and daughter is the deep and terrifying heart of this play. Hedges and Duncan are both very good, but they are neither of them brilliant.

Foster is several years too young and too good looking to be a perfect Pato. He handles the romantic scenes well, but fails to convey Pato’s feelings of being trapped by economic circumstance, which are intended to be a counterpoint to Maureen’s confinement due to family dynamics.

At first I wanted Bemis’ Ray to be edgier, more punk and less lump. But as the show progressed I understood better the adolescent rebellion inherent in refusing to take action. A little more menace in the poker scene would have been nice, but overall I empathized with Bemis and enjoyed his performance.

So while not perfect, La Frazia and his team have mounted a competent and thought-provoking production of a complex modern play. The show is well worth seeing, and Main Street Stage is well-worth supporting as a vital player in the rebirth of downtown North Adams.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs August 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, & 23 at 8 p.m. and tickets are $12 general admission, $8 for students. There will be one matinee performance on Sunday August 10 at 2 p.m. Main Street Stage will have a community night performance where attendees are asked to “pay what you can”, on Thursday, August 14 at 8 p.m. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. As this is a play about people doing each other serious harm, I would not bring children under 14 to see the show.

Main Street Stage is located at 57 Main Street in North Adams. For reservations or information please call 413-663-3240.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003

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