Theater Review: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” at Round House Theatre

Martin McDonagh’s grim comedy gets a superb staging in Bethesda.
Sarah Marshall and Kimberly Gilbert in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Photograph by Danisha Crosby.
Sarah Marshall and Kimberly Gilbert in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Photograph by Danisha Crosby.

To spend two hours with Mag Folan,
Martin McDonagh’s monstrous, malodorous, malingering horror of an old crone, is to rapidly find yourself
drawn into a sympathetic alliance with her daughter, Maureen, a 40-year-old spinster
whose life experience is limited to feeding chickens and force-feeding her mother
nutritional drinks. Trapped together in a tiny, isolated cottage, and in the kind
of needy, resentful relationship analysts can only dream of, the two wrestle in a
game of perpetual one-upmanship that seems to be their only form of entertainment
beyond a tinny, staticky radio.

Round House Theatre’s superb production of
The Beauty Queen of Leenane, directed by
Jeremy Skidmore and running through September 15, amplifies the horror in McDonagh’s grim but funny
masterpiece until it starts to feel for all the world like a hybrid of Samuel Beckett,

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and
Father Ted. When the lights go up on Mag (Sarah Marshall), she’s a movie nightmare come to life, with graying, pallid skin, wild hair, and
a gurning mouth. By contrast, Maureen (Kimberly Gilbert) is a picture of dowdiness with flat, stringy hair and a patterned sweater (the costumes
are by
Frank Labovitz). Her mother eagerly tortures her, sending her back and forth to the pantry with
endless requests, but glimmers of cruelty from the younger woman seem to suggest the
balance of power isn’t as one-sided as it might seem.

The slate tiles and dingy white walls of
Tony Cisek’s set, which depicts a small kitchen surrounded by a stone fence, add to the sense
of stifling tedium—there’s no view to appreciate from the small, dirty window, and
the only reminder that a world outside exists is the television, which spews forth
a series of Australian soap operas, a sunny, comical contrast to the chilly neglect
of the room. When one visitor, Ray Dooley (Joe Mallon) does stop by, he seems itchily uncomfortable and desperate to leave; his brother,
Pato (Todd Scofield) also finds himself in the house and seems relatively comfortable until the war of
attrition between the two women eventually forces him to leave.

Gilbert is charismatically funny as Maureen, gleefully imagining her mother’s funeral
out loud and flitting between king of the castle and shy ingenue, even if she seems
much younger than Maureen’s 40. She’s radiant when she puts on a short black dress
to go to a party, and dully vacant when her mother’s attempts to torture her hit their
mark. As Mag, Marshall is truly monstrous, sucking on her teeth, scowling, and wrenching
her features into a million different grimaces. The two lead actors are supported
by accomplished performances by Mallon and Schofield, both of whom manage to represent
very different things: the banality of the familiar and the possibility of the unknown.

Skidmore teases out tension, letting the two women pick and pick and pick at each
other until one or both are raw (the permanent presence of a positively Chekhovian
poker onstage makes things even more agonizing), and deftly twisting events so they
become maddeningly hard to trust. Tied together in their hateful codependence, Mag
and Maureen are stomach-churningly terrible and funny all at the same time, like Hamm
and Clov imbued with cattiness and relocated to 1990s Ireland. It’s impossible not
to vainly hope Maureen might manage to escape, even if the years of abuse have made
her soul as black and heavy as the kitchen stove she hovers around.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
is at Round House Bethesda through September 15. Running time is about two hours and
15 minutes, with one intermission. The show contains adult content. Tickets ($20 to
$45) are available via Round House’s website.

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