Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 26, 2013

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 15, 2013
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Kevin Spraugue
Playwright Martin McDonagh may have become Ireland’s version of prolific Neil Simon. With no offence to the latter, this Gaelic writer continuously succeeds at grabbing the human condition, balancing it with humor and outright pain. “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is similar in text to McDonagh’s other works – raw and raunchy, poignant and pathetic. This play, however, offers a meaty mystery plot which attracts its audience more so than the author’s pieces which stress humorous dialogue over storyline.

At its core, “Beauty Queen” is the dysfunctional relationship between mother and daughter. The location (on this well designed set) is a home in rural Ireland. The mother, portrayed as a disgusting and conniving creature that clings to her daughter, who has her own problems in addition to caring for mom. Maureen shouts, “You’re old and you’re stupid!” Mother Mag retorts with constant belittling. This is not a pretty play.

What a difference an excellent director makes in executing a production. Matthew Penn’s movement of characters in perfect timing with the lilting and oftentimes poetic language takes “Beauty Queen” steps above what the play could have easily slid into – uncomfortable audience laughs and groans. In spite of this saga of “creature” and her offspring on the road to becoming cliché, these are two actual people. The audience needs to know their stories and outcomes.

The same truth applies to casting decisions. No two actors on the Berkshire scene could have portrayed this duo better. Pairing Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Maureen) and Tina Packer (Mag) is an equally talented match. Aspenlieder has taken on a role atypical of most of her prior characters at this venue where she is the resident female protagonist, often frothy and on a mission. Aspenlieder’s “Beauty Queen” mission is survival, portrayed with heartache, longing, and corruption.

Tina Packer, donned in an ugly wig and unwashed nightgown, plays Mag as the epitome of harsh, unsympathetic, and formidable. Mag’s weak mannerisms unmistakably convey power and control. For two-hours, Packer becomes Mag.

In smaller, yet extremely significant roles are the men: David Sedgwick (the beaux) whose gentleness and understanding is beautiful to watch and Edmund Donovan (young neighbor) whose combination of charm and exasperation is delightful.

This summer’s repertoire at Shakespeare & Company has presented exceptional plays, emphasizing “& Company” part of the venue’s title. In addition to “Beauty Queen” were “Heroes,” “Mother Courage,” and “Master Class.”