‘You can’t kick a cow in Leenane without some bastard holding a grudge 20 years.”
So says Pato, a middle-aged construction worker who plays a central part in the Guild’s latest production, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which opened last Thursday.
The play’s set in an Irish backwater, but the themes of social stagnation and ancient grudges will ring true to anyone who’s spent time in a small town anywhere.
It’s also a play that will present many challenges for the Guild to pull off – not least of them, each character speaks in Irish brogue.
Katherine McCallum, the Guild’s artistic director, picked the play for a simple reason. It’s one of her favourites.
“It’s fun. It’s dark. It’s got insight into human nature. And it’s surprising.”
The action centres on Maureen Folan, a 40-year-old spinster who lives with her 70-year-old mother, Mag. Each loathes, and depends on, the other.
“We keep referring to the play as a boxing match,” said director Clinton Walker. “You quickly realize they’re the banes of each others’ existence. But they can’t live without each other.”
Complications arise following the arrival of Pato, who Maureen sees as her last chance at love, and Mag sees as a threat to be driven from the house at all costs.
Walker, who lives in Toronto, admits he was skeptical when McCallum first approached him with the script. But he says he’s convinced they found the right cast to pull it off.
Moira Sauer plays Maureen. Mary Sloane plays Mag.
Anthony Trombetta plays Pato. And Kieran Poile plays Ray, Pato’s younger brother.
The question of how to pull-off the play’s accents is complicated by the fact that the script’s dialect doesn’t actually exist. Rather than being authentic to the region, “it’s like what a cartoon would have,” said Walker.
He settled on having a woman from Dublin record herself reading the script, to provide a base to work from. And he urged the actors to not overdo it.
Accents are “judged so harshly when they’re wrong,” said Walker. “They can pull you out of the reality of the play.”
Yet they’re not the be-all and end-all. “As long you’re bringing life and breath to the character, that’s what’s important,” said Walker.
He suspects we all have a Maureen and Mag within us.
“We develop all sorts of coping mechanisms in life. And not all of these coping mechanisms are good for us,” said Walker. “They do everything against the grain of what we’d consider to be a normal, productive life.
“I go, ‘I’ve had this fight with my mother.’ Or, ‘I’ve been so negative and just can’t wait to get drunk for the rest of my life.’ Thankfully, I have the lens that says that wouldn’t be a good choice.”
The set design is meant to capture the “hoarding sensibility” of the play’s stagnant lives. “It’s like going into grandma’s attic,” said Walker.
The stage is littered with broken appliances, musty pictures and stacks of old newspapers, “to capture the idea that these people have given up,” said Walker.
The play is the work of Martin McDonagh, an Irish playwright who provokes polarizing responses from audiences. His work is controversial, in part, because while he was raised by Irish parents, and spent summers in Galway, he grew up in London, England.
Critic Elizabeth O’Neill divides responses to McDonagh’s works into two camps: “those who think he’s captured the black humour and zeitgeist of a postmodern rural Ireland, and those who see him as making a mockery of Ireland and the Irish by lampooning that caricature of old, the ‘stage-Irish’ fool.”
In other words, it’s sort of like having a Torontonian write a play about the Yukon – which is precisely the situation that Walker finds himself in.
He became fascinated with the territory since coming up in the spring to direct the Guild’s production of the Laramie Project.
“I’ve completely drunk the Whitehorse Kool-Aid,” said Walker. “I love it here. I fantasize about moving here sometimes.”
On the side, he’s working on a play that explores how people head north both to find themselves and to run away from their problems. He’s still sorting out what today’s stampeders seek, if not gold.
But the answer seems obvious: arts grants.
“True enough,” he said with a chuckle.
The show runs until December 11. Tickets are $18 for Wednesdays and Thursdays, $20 for Fridays and Saturdays, available at Whitehorse Motors at Fourth and Wheeler.
Contact John Thompson at