Savage, violent acts happen in the plays of Martin McDonagh, including the sledgehammer-smashing of exhumed skulls, the crucifixion of a little girl and myriad gruesome murders and decapitations of humans and animals. And while there is a violent act late in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, it could be argued that the Anglo-Irish playwright still hasn't created a character as vile as Mag in that play, currently being revived by Kitchen Dog Theater, directed by Cameron Cobb.
Beauty Queen was written at the same time as the other two plays in McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy (A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West), as well as all three in his Aran Islands Trilogy. But it was the first on Broadway and the first to receive major regional productions, so revisiting it after we've gotten to know his other plays, which thrive on gallows humor, is a reminder of his gift for storytelling and creating vivid characters.
Mag (Nancy Sherrard) is the mother who lives in a rundown cottage with her 40-year-old daughter, Maureen (Karen Parish), who hasn't married and is the biggest disappointment/source of sadistic entertainment for Mag. She'll do anything to mentally torture her daughter, including keep her from escaping to a happier life with suitor Pato (Scott Latham). That's a plot in which his little brother Ray (Drew Wall) unknowingly becomes a pawn in Mag's twisted game.
She's a horrid, soulless mama who makes all of those other famous mothers who play mind games with their daughters, from Amanda Wingfield to Mama Rose to Mommie Dearest, seem like the mother in the comic strip Family Circus.
She's obviously a tough role to play, too. Casting this part has been the hitch for the two professional Dallas productions we've had, although Kitchen Dog fares much better than Theatre Three did more than 10 years ago.
Sherrard comes close to striking that delicate balance of a bitter woman who has some spunk and won't shy from a good, harmless laugh; but is at her core a loathsome human being who can't let anyone have real happiness in her presence. In Sherrard's hands, Mag's perennial mean streak isn't as deliberate as McDonagh intends. Rather, it's on the desperate side, and creates more mixed emotions about the act in the final scene than there should be.
Maureen is a great role for Parish, who simmers with desperation and frustration, and rightfully so. Latham's sad eyes lend to his striking performance, and Wall reminds why he does bumbling idiot better than anyone in town.
Clare Floyd DeVries' squalid set and Jen J. Madison's costumes aid in the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that dominates this play; and if you have a hard time deciphering the thick, rural, Western Irish accents, credit dialect coach Sally Nystuen-Vahle. Also, the choice to use Sinéad O'Connor songs as incidental music in the second act works well, especially her song "Jackie."
Fun fact: The voice of the radio announcer in this production is Enda Walsh, an Irish playwright and friend of McDonagh's. Walsh was in town recently working with Southern Methodist University students for his Meadows Prize obligations. He, along with fellow Meadows Prize winner, Irish choreography Michael Keegan-Dolan, held a workshop at Kitchen Dog when Leenane was in the final week of rehearsal. (Walsh's play Penelope will be done by Undermain Theatre at City Performance Hall in January.)
All in all, any chance to see a McDonagh play in a professional setting, even one that's not quite perfect, is a worthy time at the theater. He's working more in film these days, but still has theatrical projects lined up.
As one of the great storytellers of contemporary theater, there's no way he could stay away from the stage. We're all the better for it.