In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Moira Sauer often mirrors the lifeless plants scattered about the stage in the Guild’s latest production.
Brittle, dark and desperate, Sauer plays Maureen, a middle-aged Irish virgin locked in a disturbing and destructive relationship with her aged mother.
The dead plants litter the piled newspapers and crooked wood that frames the decrepit kitchen, the play’s only set.
Here, Maureen and her mother Mag, played by Mary Sloan, bicker incessantly with one another.
Maureen is the beauty queen. Or at least that’s what her love – her only hope of escape from the rumour mill of a town in northwestern Ireland – calls her.
Sauer’s portrayal of the intricate character is both compelling and impressive. She pulls the audience into internal combat – they root for her, yet recoil at the brutality of her actions.
The audience feels these conflicting emotions because of the grace and vulnerability that Sauer brings to Maureen.
Her main companion on stage is Sloan, who plays the horrid, 70-year-old Mag.
With little more than a ponytail and housecoat, Sloan convincingly played a decrepit, malicious, scheming mother.
At times, her yells and facial contortions were over the top, but Sloan kept pace with Sauer from the confines of a rocking chair.
The juxtaposition of the characters creates a dynamic of frustrating dependency, leaving the audience questioning who’s worse? The mother who sabotages any hope for her daughter’s happiness, or the daughter who glares at the old woman, saying how she hopes to find a man who will, “Rip your old head off and spit in your neck hole.”
Sinister lines like this are sprinkled throughout the script, written by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, and they often elicit awkward laughter from the audience.
The toxic tumult between the mother and daughter could have been delivered as a constant screaming match, but the two women’s line delivery is effectively nuanced.
While the play did have its fair share of shrieks, it’s use of low-toned insults and black humour sustains the women’s complex love-hate sentiment throughout the performance.
The actors’ voices were under scrutiny from the beginning, with a knowing audience listening for campy leprechaun-like Irish accents.
That didn’t happen.
Cast rookie Kieran Poile, who played Ray, the younger brother of Maureen’s love interest, did fall in and out of his accent, especially when he delivered lines with heightened excitement and agitation. However, with his tracksuit costume and body language, which whipsawed between energetic and lethargic, he convincingly played a teenager in Western Europe.
The accents held up, forcing the audience to adjust to a different dialect filled with unfamiliar idioms.
It was the soundscape and music choice, largely in the first act, which was this play’s weakest link.
Scene changes were conducted to contemporary tunes, including one from Canadian songstress Feist, who’s playful chords were undoubtedly intended to uphold the mood, but were jarring because they would never be heard on a 70-year-old’s radio in mid-‘90s Ireland.
And there were other sound defects. For example, the radio in Mag’s kitchen seemed to have a will of its own, turning on and off when there was nobody nearby to twist the knobs.
But such problems were minor, and more than offset by the lighting.
Single hanging light bulbs and firelight from the wood stove were cued perfectly, creating mood and intimacy onstage.
Local funny man Anthony Trombetta was forced into bouts of intimacy with his role of Pato, Maureen’s love interest.
Trombetta didn’t take away from the play, but he didn’t add much either. This was disappointing, especially because, while small, his role was the only one grounded in morality.
In writing The Beauty Queen of Leenane, McDonagh has crafted a compelling story that can stand on its own.
McDonagh’s characters’ dance the line of decency, shocking and captivating the audience in the same way sex and serial killers do.
The concise writing allowed the audience to react in all the ways it did – laughter, shock, anger and complete, bitter gloom – to McDonagh’s unexpected twists.
The actors could have stumbled, the music could have been dreadful and the stage could have been utterly dark and McDonagh’s narrative would have made this tragic story something to see.
But, fortunately that’s not the case.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at