Aye for Beauty

I've seen three plays about mothers and daughters this month — two of them just this past week. Pearls: Motherhood Unstrung collects monologues by and about mothers, authored by local writers and read by local actors. The Last Lists of My Mad Mother, about a middle-aged woman dealing with her mother's late-stage Alzheimer's disease, played a short run at the brand-new Theatre Artists Studio. A few days later, I saw Algonquin Theater's remount of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, playwright Martin McDonagh's stunning two-act about a tyrannical mother-daughter relationship set in a dismal Irish village.

At its core, Beauty Queen is an old-fashioned melodrama, but McDonagh's gorgeous language and slowly unfolding secrets make this more than just another potboiler come to life. He's shoehorned some very dark humor into the piece to offset the gray brutality of peasant village life, personified in Maureen Folan (Robyn Allen), who's "forty, for feck's sake" and has only ever kissed two men. She taunts her invalid mother with her desire to lose her virginity, and Mag Folan (Sharon Collar) responds with bitter enmity and well-chosen put-downs. After Maureen receives a proposal from an old beau, it appears her life will change at last. But the series of quick, mundane events that follows has us wondering: Which of these dried-up crones is the victim here?

Robyn Allen is always an attraction, and in the title role she gets to play fear, rage, madness, and even comedy, which she does with abandon and equal style. When, very late in the play, Maureen has a meltdown, Allen plays it with such restraint that I wanted to hit an imaginary "rewind" button and watch the scene again.

As excellent as Allen is, it's Collar who steals the show with a superbly eccentric, one-of-a-kind performance. She captures the feistiness of a woman not afraid to stand her ground against cruelty while she's essentially a prisoner in her own wasted life. Collar succeeds in blending Mag's starchiness with a natural vulnerability, and does a superb job of conveying her bitterness with easy articulation and a substantial dose of anxiety.

The two men in the cast can't compare, although Ron Hunting brings a great deal of warmth to Pato, the most sympathetic character here and the man who's Maureen's last hope for romance and happiness. His solo scene, in which he reads to us the love letter he's written to Maureen, is nicely shaded with casual humor, but Hunting brings a necessary deep sorrow to the reading as well. As the impatient younger brother of Maureen's paramour, A.J. Moorehead is flat and unaffecting, and I often couldn't comprehend his curt blasts of dialogue.

Dan Schay's direction is impeccable in that it's practically invisible, and could only have been improved with smoother set changes. Greg Hynes' dumpy set is entirely apt and functions beautifully; would that I could say the same about the lazy sound cues, which I hope by now have been cleaned up. But a few technical glitches aside, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a fine, sturdy production that offers two splendid performances from its female leads.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela