TWO SIDES, SAME COIN Kane and Overly. [Photo by Peter Goldberg]
Some people are brittle and dry as tinder, but they don't have the sense to not play with matches. The two women at the dangerous center of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane could blaze up at any moment, and we know that one or both will by the end. Each is filled with so much pent-up hatred that spontaneous combustion seems a distinct possibility.
The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre is staging it through June 2, directed with smart pacing and finesse by Judith Swift.
This is the first play of McDonough's two trilogies set in County Galway where, judging by these stories, the predominant pastimes are violence and dark humor. So the two women in Beauty Queen can be thought of as psychological templates for the playwright's ensuing examinations.
Mag Folan (Wendy Overly) is a sour old woman, a queen in her own right, judging from the way she orders around her daughter from her rocking chair throne. Maureen Folan (Jeanine Kane) is 40 years old and poised for a spinsterhood equally grim.
Despite the dark cloud hanging over everyone, there is plenty of leavening humor. Incidental stuff, on the order of every recurring reference to a Father Welsh starting out with his being called Father Walsh.
The one-room set is dense with characterizing detail. Above the fireplace is a nearly empty bottle of whiskey; no family photos, but one of JFK. There's an embroidery oval with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and a white enamel sink into which Mag pours her night's pee, despite her daughter's persistent objections.
That last detail demonstrates their twisted dynamic: resentful tolerance punctuated by petty intentional annoyances. Maureen can leave the lumps in or not when she stirs her mother's porridge; Mag can time her incessant requests for maximum inconvenience. The first 10 minutes or so of the play have Maureen not able to sit down to her True Detective magazine for more than seconds at a time before her mother asks her to turn on the radio, or turn it down, or make her some tea, or whatever.
Overly is remarkable in how she keeps us fascinated. After all, we are seeing a mean old woman we could label and dismiss as a hissing dragon hunched over her treasure of enmity, not worth paying further attention to. She does so by making us watch for every tiny cruelty bubbling up from her black heart, revealing themselves in her squinting eyes and smiles of dark revelation.
It's not as though Maureen is a browbeaten servant. "You're old, you're stupid, and you don't know what you're talking about" is her typical observation. So we wonder why she lets herself be ordered around. Some token vestige of maternal fealty? Catholic penance? Guilt? Kane fine-tunes Maureen's responses, so we see which are reflexive and which intended.
The only visitor they usually get is Ray Dooley, played by Joe Short as boyishly antic, ping-ponging about the room and not able to sit without wiggling his feet. He comes there only when there is some message to give them. After 10 years, he is still angry with Maureen for having confiscated a tetherball that he and some other boys accidentally batted onto her property. (In this understated way, we are informed of the dire poverty of the village — they could never afford to replace it.)