Review: In Three Crows’ Beauty Queen of Leenane, McDonagh’s Dark Comedy Illuminates

Before last year's The Banshees of Inisherin... before Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri... before In Bruges... before all the Oscars noms and Tony nods Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has racked up over the last two decades, there was The Beauty Queen of Leenane, his astonishing 1996 debut at the age of 27.

An enormous success in Ireland, London and New York, The Beauty Queen of Leenane was memorably first staged in Chicago almost 25 years ago at Steppenwolf Theatre with Laurie Metcalf in the title role. Since then, the play has been staged here in town at least twice—by the Actor's Workshop Theater in 2006 and at Northlight in 2018—and now it is Three Crows Theatre's turn at this pitch-black yet often riotously funny play.

Judith Laughlin and Brandon Beach. Photo by Samuel Fitzwater-Butchart.

Director Daniel Sappington does this with four actors and a single set; Three Crows nevertheless absolutely fills the stage with their expert performance of McDonagh's gripping work. The story is deceptively simple: a 40-something woman, trapped as a caretaker to her aging mother, sees her last chance for love and reaches for it. It's a story that's been told many times before, but perhaps never with quite this mix of jolly poison.

Each of the four actors brings something special to the performance. Brandon Beach is charming as the lovable lout Ray Dooley, who can't be trusted with a task as simple as delivering a letter. And Nathanael Negrón, as fleeting love interest Pato Dooley, delivers one of the play's most touching moments in a shy and tender monologue that perfectly evokes his hesitant attempt to connect with the woman he calls a "beauty queen."

Nathanael Negrón. Photo by Samuel Fitzwater-Butchart.

But the center of the play is occupied by two formidable characters and the talented actors who portray them: Judith Laughlin as the sly and manipulative mother, Mag Folan, and Three Crows company artistic director Selena Lopez as her daughter (and title character), Maureen. The pair conduct what amounts to a grinding war of attrition as they bully and torment each other. The end result is a captivating portrait of the kind of cruelty that can only exist within families.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs through September 17 at the Raven Theater (6157 N. Clark St). The show lasts 105 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets are available at www.threecrowstheatre.com or at the Raven box office (773-338-2177).

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Doug Mose

Doug Mose grew up on a farm in western Illinois, and moved to the big city to go to grad school. He lives with his husband Jim in Printers Row. When he’s not writing for Third Coast Review, Doug works as a business writer.