Northlight Theatre’s production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Martin McDonagh’s quietly devastating dark comedy, takes place in the provincial town of Leenane. Directed by B.J. Jones, the Tony Award-winning play details the life of Maureen (Kate Fry), a 40-year-old woman who lives with and cares for her aging mother, Mag (Wendy Robie). At first appearance, Mag appears both frail and needy; however, we quickly gain deeper insight into her manipulative nature as we see her meddle with Maureen’s life more and more. When Maureen begins to get romantically involved with a man (Nathan Hosner), Mag’s manipulation gets deeper and deeper, forcing Maureen to determine how far she’s willing to go for a chance at freedom.
If that synopsis sounds more dramatic than comedic, understand that McDonagh’s dark comedies are frequently quite bleak. Although more of a household name now, thanks to his film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, theater makers have long mined his desperate, caustically funny plays in Chicago, New York and beyond. Indeed, a sense of quiet dread underscores much of Maureen’s desperation, even as audiences laugh at some of McDonagh’s more absurd, linguistic exchanges. Those absurdities are not unlike those of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, another Irish playwright. At its heart, Beauty Queen is comedic in its accurate portrayal of its characters’ foibles and ugliness.
Those foibles are brought to life in richly layered performances by the talented cast. As Maureen, Fry crafts a believable journey, peppering the play with enough hints to earn the play’s dark ending. Robie, too, adds depth and dimension to the role of Mag, allowing us to understand what motivates her even as it damages Maureen’s livelihood. Jones’ deft direction is unobtrusive, smartly pacing each scene while letting each character’s arc develop.
All of these elements are supported by Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design, which dingily immerses you in the hopeless setting Maureen finds herself in. J.R. Lederle’s shadowy lighting complements Rosenthal’s milieu while offering a subtle hint of menace as well. As early as the first scene, it’s clear that, even with some laughs along the way, this play will not end happily.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues through April 22, with performances Tuesdays through Sundays. Tickets and more information is available online at northlight.org.