The Beauty Queen of Leenane @ Round House Theatre is, hands down, one of the most unforgettable theatre experiences you’ll have in DC this year. The kind of theatre experience that makes you feel like someone punched you in the gut, and hell, you liked it. The kind of theatre experience that you wish more people were part of with you, because, goddammit, you really just want to talk about it at all times. It has been a solid four days since I spent two hours and fifteen minutes in the company of Maureen, her Mother Mag, and the two Dooley brothers, and my heart and soul are showing no signs of being able to shake them.
The story, as told by BYT Favorite Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, The Cripple of Inishmaan) is as simple as it is devastating: in a wet, miserable, rocky Irish village of Leenane, Maureen, a forty year old virgin, spends her days taking care of her poor, weak, sickly, selfish Mother Mag, having missed all the trains that would have allowed her to escape this life. The days revolve around biscuits, porridge, weather and TV discussions and general mental torture the two women, both dependent on each other, and resentful of their circumstances, subject one another to. Contempt and judgement are served for every meal of the day here.
Enter Ray Dooley, a nice Irish lad, with not too many lightbulbs on in his red head, who arrives bearing an invite for Maureen from his brother Pato, to join them for a “do”, a going away party being held for some of their American immigrant cousins. Leenane, you see, is the kind of place where the only cause for celebration is that you’re leaving it. This evening will turn into what Maureen will see as her unexpected last chance of escape, and will set in motion a series of events that you know can’t possibly end well (Leenane is, you see, no place for happy endings), and yet still turn out way more devastating and viscerally affecting than even the most jaded, pessimistic theatre goer could anticipate. And they turn out so with aplomb.
McDonagh is known for his pitch black humor, and he is in fine form here. The best way to take your medicine (and poison), after all, is with a spoonful of sugar. And there is plenty of poison to be taken here. For anyone who has been a Parent (but especially a Mother), a Child (but especially a Daughter), a Lover, or a Sibling, the themes are eternal: the desire to be loved, the desire to be taken care of, the desire to make something of yourself, the fear of abandonment, and, of course, the resentment of responsibility. Still, set in this damp, lonely living room (the only set in the play) and acted out in the claustrophobic confines of the four actors on stage, they bubble so close to the surface that they seem more devastating than any feelings ever felt by humans.
The cast, needless to say, is perfect, and it needs to be to keep your attention during these hard times. Kimberly Gilbert as Maureen and Sarah Marshall as Mag are both a master class in petty AND overwhelming misery. Marshall works her jawline like a toothless shark, so angry to have lost her biting power that she is determined to cause even more damage than she was able to while in her prime, and Gilbert plays a dowdy, meekling with the kind of hidden depths that we, as the audience find ourselves wishing would never get plumbed. Anchoring them are two sturdy men (Todd Scofield as Pato and Joe Mallon as Ray), whose physicality offsets the female fragility perfectly, even if mentally they are no match for these women.
The tone is constantly shifting: from bitter to taciturn to hopeful to sad to well, positively macabre and the actors, under Jeremy Skidmore’s McDonagh savvy tutelage, never skip a beat. Not a single character in the play is actually redeemable, but at at least one point in time, you feel for them, even as breaking points are reached and barriers crossed. You may want to look away, but trust us, you won’t be able to.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane @ Round House Theatre is playing through September 15th and we think you REALLY REALLY need to go. Brace yourselves beforehand and definitely plan on a morale-lifting drink afterwards, but nonetheless, you REALLY REALLY need to go.