The Beauty Queen of the Leenane

There's a series of now famous psychology experiments by Harry Harlow where baby monkeys who were nursed by wire-mesh monkeys during their growth ended up with dysfunctional personality (even with respect to their ability to raise children). The Beauty of the Queen of the Leenane, a play by Martin McDonagh, illustrates how this holds for human parents and offspring as well.

The "plot" is primarily about the relationship between a mother and daughter in an isolated part of Ireland. The mother, Mag Folan (Angela Paton), is an hypochondriac and abuses the daughter to a point where the daughter, Maureen (Michelle Morain), has become bitter and neurotic. Together they've formed a co-dependent and depressing sado-masochistic relationship. Maureen has a chance at normalcy when she runs into Pato Dooley (Jeffrey King), a normal and stable local who becomes enamoured of her. However, Mag steps in and subverts their growing relationship, driving Maureen to insanity, and thus making her an image of herself.

The futility of life is illustrated extremely starkly in this play. I'm an extremely happy person in life and as I was watching the play, I realised that one of the things that makes me extremely sad is encountering people who are in a difficult emotional situation. These people are unable to extricate themselves from it, and people who try to help them either barely manage walk with their own sanity or get sucked into the neurosis. Right from the beginning, we know Maureen's relationship with Pato is doomed. Depicting how it occurs in a compelling manner is McDonagh's job.

McDonagh paints a harsh and brutal portrait of rural Ireland in his first play (the first in a trilogy). The play itself is "well-made" (following Aristotlean conventions) and pays a stunning attention to detail. The idiosyncratic touches (Mag wanting her Complan without lumps and watching Australian soap operas while waiting for the news) make for some humour and add a sense of reality to the setting. One can almost visualise the cows grazing outside the window in the bleak Irish home. The use of darkness and sound to signify certain events is not only convenient, but also complements the ambiguous nature of the mind that emotionally unstable people must endure.

The production I saw was at the Berkeley Repository Theatre, directed by Richard Seyd. The set design (William Bloodgood) and lighting (Jack Carpenter) was excellent---I can't think of anything more that might have added more dysfunctionality to McDonagh's vision. The Irish accents (Nancy Benjamin) were also done incredibly well and it was a surprise when the actors began speaking with American accents after the play. And on that note, the acting was simply brilliant: Paton and Morain portray their selfishness and bitterness so realistically that it startled me at the end when they slightly kissed each other when they took their bows. Both King and Brandon Karrer as Pato's brother Ray, epitomising the happy-go-lucky nature of youth, present solid performances.

The ending is ambiguous. What really happens to Mag, and how Maureen is disappointed, is not clear. The most plausible explanation to me is that Maureen suffered a second nervous breakdown. Like I said, the play will most likely bring you down, but it is cathartic and makes one realise the power of human emotion. I highly recommend checking it out if you're in the mood---it is an intense experience.

Play ram-blings || Ram Samudrala ||