With the downward trend in repertory and touring play companies in America, having the opportunity to see a play, and a straight play at that, on a seven-month international tour is a rare thing, indeed. Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a seething dark comedy that is masterfully unfolded over the course of about two hours, is making a return tour de force again with Druid Theatre Company after storming the Broadway stage twenty years ago. The show was nominated for six Tony awards and won four, including best actress and best director, both of whom returned for the 2017 production. This production packs slow, deliberate punches that managed to keep the eyes of the audience members in the 1,700-seat Paramount Theatre glued to the stage.
Marie Mullen, who won the Tony award for playing the daughter Maureen, twenty years ago, returns to the play as the mother Mag, and her knowledge of the text seems to be deeply ingrained into her bones. Mag remains still and silent for much of the play, sitting in a well-worn armchair staring at a dingy television screen. She creates a complex relationship with the audience, whose love and hatred for her can turn on a dime. Mullen masterfully captures Mag’s tactical brittleness, often to garner the attention of her daughter Maureen, while also revealing the undeniable need to have Maureen in her life for fear of being left alone. In a scene in which Mag is faced with the decision to let her daughter read a letter from her lover that will surely entice Maureen to move to Boston, the audience seemed ready to tear the velvet out of their seats in anticipation of what Mag will choose to do. In the American theatre, where Annie Baker’s crafted silences causes Playwrights Horizons to write a letter of apology, Martin McDonagh’s masterful use of silence onstage paired with Garry Hynses’s Tony-award winning direction created a dramatic tension that could be compared to watching a football player preparing to kick a life or death field goal. When Mag makes her decision by burning the letter, members of the audience screamed out in frustration, showing the power of meticulously constructed, plot-driven silence onstage.
Rarely does the audience deserve an honorable mention in a critique of a play, and yet the audience turnout is reflective of script’s impact. The theatre seemed to bounce back a plethora of Irish dialects from all ages. My theatre companion that night is from Dublin, and ran into a childhood friend not seen in over a decade sitting in our aisle. The specificity of choosing Leenane as the location of the play allowed for a universality amongst the Irish audience members, laughing at jokes about life in the Ireland countryside that a purely American audience may not pick up on. McDonagh incorporated a running joke about biscuit brands in the script, which at first proved humorous to a certain set of audience members who knew the brands by name. As the play progressed, however, the audience was trained to remember the brand names, and the humor opened up to a wider audience. In the final scene of the play, Maureen turns on the radio to hear an Irish ballad that plays out through the end of the show. Members of the audience actually joined in and sung along, There was something oddly remarkable about this instance of audience engagement; as Maureen’s life has reached a tragic demise, the sounds of the audience joining in to sing the Irish ballad in an ironically hopeful manner. For a touring production that inspires such specificity of location while also inspiring audience engagement, how can our Boston theatre community continue to engage our international population?
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a triumph for our international theatre, creating a highly specific story that rang universal for the ArtsEmerson stage. The patience in which director Garry Hynes allows for the play to maintain a slow burn sets up the invitation to not only pick up the Irish dialect to an untrained ear, but to allow the audience to maintain a steady investment in the characters. This allows for Mag’s decision to burn the letter to create an explosive reaction in the audience, all the while keeping the steady unfolding of McDonagh’s script down to a tee.