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.