Watching the Gamm’s splendid, perfectly sharp, gloriously acted production of “Beauty Queen” was, for me at least, a trip down two very different roads. On one hand, I kept thinking of the legions of travel advertisements we’ve all seen. Ahh, the green of Ireland, the rolling hills, the charming little towns, the friendly pubs. Where have you gone Rick Steves?
But that sunny, green view is hardly the take of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. His Ireland is a tortured underground where old hatreds run deep and old needs are so close to the surface. It’s a place where a mother/daughter clash can end in a blood-filled tragedy of Greek proportion.
At the Gamm, Judith Swift has directed a spine-tingling production, one that gets all of the horror, and humor, of playwright McDonagh’s world. (Yes, this play of tragedy is also laugh out loud funny.) “Beauty Queen” takes place in the rural far west of Ireland, the small town of Leenane, in County Galway, to be specific. In a super performance the Gamm’s leading lady, Jeanine Kane, is Maureen, a 40-year-old virgin whose life is filled with frustration and trouble. Her sisters are married and away; Maureen must stay home with her 70-year-old mother, a woman of monumental fierceness, meanness, and great needs.
When a slump-shouldered Maureen first shuffles on stage, her feet padding the floor, dressed all in dun colors, she immediately lets you know this is a woman almost defeated by life.
Later, when she gets one last chance to improve her world, when she’s dressed in a sexy little black dress, and has a man in view, you root hard for her, and it’s heartbreaking to know it’s not going to work out.
Kane is wondrous and it is another wonder when she is matched in brilliance by Wendy Overly as the mad Mama. Overly’s performance can almost be wrapped up In one moment when she encompasses all the mean-spirited plotting, the sheer malevolence of her life, by merely sitting down in a chair. The creaky suffering of that moment tells you much about why Mother is a madwoman. And when she never hesitates to take full advantage of preventing the one last chance her daughter has for a better life, her eyes squint and gleam with pure poisonous drive. And you know you are seeing a second great performance.
The men? Oh yes, there are males and they are very fine, too. Steve Kidd is a home village boy who’s gone away and done okay. He covets Maureen but can’t quite make the full effort that might take her away, to that land of opportunity:
America. Kidd shows you all of the underneath fear, and lack of self-confidence that does-in people who have been put down and beaten on a large scale. Joe Short plays a comic relief character very well, too.
So, all and all, “The Beauty Queen of Leenne” is not a play for the faint of heart or young children. But it is a triumph for anyone who loves the strength of powerful, honest theater.
Want To Go?
“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” continues at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket through June 2nd.
Editor's Note: This story was edited to correct that the play takes place in Leenane.
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