White-hot 'Beauty Queen' sears Thunder Mountain Theatre stage

Posted: Thursday, April 24, 2008

"The Beauty Queen of Leenane" may fool you for a few minutes with its quaint set depicting a well-worn cottage kitchen. But the simple setting belies an underground torrent of rage.

This is a tight, gritty, contemporary show in which two central characters, an aging mother and her troubled, spinster daughter, quickly reveal the depth of their misery at being trapped in Leenane, a cold, rainy, isolated Irish village.

At first it seems that the daughter, Maureen, played with almost frightening realism by Patricia Hull, is simply a rude, mean nag mercilessly harassing her mother. I thought to myself, maybe they just talk that way in Ireland. And the mother, convincingly captured by Becky Orford, is indeed an interfering, selfish old witch. But the script quickly drives the aggrieved bantering to a shocking level of wickedness.

Hull is wonderful to watch - vividly "in character" - complete with facial ticks and a wide range of emotions: utter resignation, pettiness, a streak of lasciviousness. Orford affects a marvelously bitter and stoic grimace, while her hunched stance and overwrought gestures underscore her character's scheming nature. Corin Hughes-Skandijs plays his role of a bored, swaggering village youth with gusto, taking on the details of his character with boorish nose-picking and swinging of feet onto the tablecloth. The fourth character is this youth's older brother, a prodigal son who is bound for America, ("the land of the Kennedys") played with great sensitivity by Chris Murray.

When Pato (Murray) comes onto the scene, a zesty diversion is inserted into the droning sameness of the two women's lives, bonded together so unhappily. The congenial Pato sweetly woos Maureen, calling her "the beauty queen of Leenane." We believe him. She believes him. The chemistry between them sizzles. And soon after burns up like a love letter on fire.

The themes are reminiscent of Tennessee Williams - mental illness, the plight of women, abandonment - but this play is much less romantic in style: It is savage.

Director Ryan Conarro has felt the pulse of the script and was fortunate to have such a talented cast to draw upon.

The old woman and her daughter, the returning lover and his punk kid brother, play out, in multiple simultaneous layers, the tragedies of aging alone, of abject despair, of smoldering regret, and, thankfully, unexpected flashes of grim humor. Looming behind the characters and their stories is the profound cultural desperation of poor, out-of-work Irish villagers, because only a few will escape.

This is hardly an evening of blithe entertainment; there is no happy ending. There is, however, deeply compelling acting and a white-hot script. With theater like this, who needs off-Broadway?

• Emily Kane can be reached at DoctorEm@aol.com.

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