Life in the Galway countryside gets rather soggy, but playwright Martin McDonagh can strike a match just about anywhere. The first few scenes of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the jet-black 1996 comedy that did much to launch McDonagh’s career, feel bleak but mostly benign. But leave it to McDonagh, and his diabolically sharp wit, to set such quiet, humble moments suddenly ablaze.
Inside the old cottage where daughter Maureen (Kimberly Gilbert) and mother Mag (Sarah Marshall) reside, everything’s highly combustible. And Round House’s powerful, well-rounded revival, directed by Jeremy Skidmore, finds ample opportunity to fan the flames of horror, passion, and surprisingly evil acts committed by, and between, these two very different but equally fierce women.
McDonagh’s got a Tarantino-esque flair for capping off dread and suspense with sudden bouts of violence, and even though Maureen’s resentment is obvious — she cares for her chair-bound mother at the expense of growing a life of love and independence for herself — we’re not sure at first how thoroughly this weary routine will eventually shatter.
That this sad microcosm eventually morphs into such a captivating thriller speaks not just to McDonagh’s writing but to Skidmore’s attention to detail, his designers’ ability to etch this world so finely, and — to say the least — to the talents of Marshall and Gilbert, whose keen work on DC-area stages over the years speaks largely for itself.
The forlorn stone cottage, designed by Tony Cisek, feels sprung from the rocky earth like a slab of brimstone, and Dan Covey’s nicely bare-faced lighting design brings moments of flickering intimacy — then, at times, a spooky fluorescence — to a space that functions as both a haven and a prison. The musical strains of reels and folk songs punctuate the show between scenes, thanks to a rich composition and sound design by Eric Shimelonis.
And still the space often feels, hauntingly, less like a home than a dim cavern in which two desperate characters, competing for control, knock together until the sparks finally fly.
This is the sort of escalating nightmare that deserves an unspoiled crescendo, so we’ll avoid going too deep into the plot. But the flinty details dropped early in the show should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that a stand-off will ensue. Mag makes mincemeat of Maureen’s self-confidence, working hard to keep her shut up inside rather than cavorting around town. Maureen, who shows flashes of fury not unreasonable (at least at first) given the spinster role she’s been made to assume, grows increasingly reckless.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Closes September 15, 2013
Round House Theatre – Bethesda
4545 East-West Highway
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $50
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Those who haven’t previously seen Beauty Queen will find such swerves between comedy and tragedy as unsettling as do Mag and Maureen, whose shared confusion over their own toxic two-way of need and revulsion turns what were once future hopes into looming, upsetting questions. But those who know the fates of these dueling women will still be struck, I expect, by Gilbert and Marshall’s well-practiced capacity to bring texture and surprise to these complex characters.
Skidmore sets the stage wonderfully for a showdown, then makes the equally shrewd decision to step aside and let two great actresses work at each other, to horrifying effect. Beauty Queen established McDonagh internationally as one of Ireland’s strongest, sharpest playwrights — the show, originally produced in Galway, made it to Broadway by 1998 — but it’s in thoughtfully crafted productions like this one that the simple core of his first major play shines through. A world pulled apart by two opposing forces simply cannot hold, and the return to stasis and solitude in this chill lonely land may prove, in fact, to be frightfully inevitable.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh . Directed by Jeremy Skidmore . Featuring Kimberly Gilbert, Joe Mallon, Sarah Marshall, Todd Scofield. Scenic Design: Tony Cisek . Costume Design: Frank Labovitz . Lighting Design: Dan Covey . Composer/Sound Design: Eric Shimelonis . Props Master: Pamela Weiner . Fight Choreographer: Joe isenberg . Dialect Coach: Leigh Wilson Smiley . Stage Manager: Che Wernsman . Produced by Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Hunter Styles.
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
John Glass . DramaUrge
(uncredited) . WTOP
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Andrew White . MDTheatreGuide
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Peter Marks . Washington Post
David Friscic . DCMetroTheaterArts