‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ goes deep on family dysfunction

Aging ain’t easy,” my friend remarked as we left the Breckenridge Backstage Theatre’s showing of The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Indeed, Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play examines the fear of getting old and lonely, but it is so much more than that. Exposing the pressures and burdens of taking care of an unpleasant and seemingly ungrateful elderly parent, the themes of neglect and elder abuse are taken to a dreadful level. The play also delves into the shameful and devastating effects of mental illness, a timeless subject that seems all too significant today. Although it was a little uncomfortable to watch (and folks who like lighter fare may not love this one), I thoroughly enjoyed the production of this darkly comic Irish tale.

Set in the small Irish town of Leenane, the story follows the combative relationship between an elderly woman named Mag Folan (Nancy Sherrard) and her lonely daughter and caretaker Maureen Folan (Shannon Foley). The situation between Mag and Maureen is untenable, with nasty insults flying back and forth in what’s apparently a long-running dysfunctional relationship. Their horrific treatment of each other left me wondering which one was the victim and which one the aggressor.

The home is visited by Ray Dooley, brilliantly played by Nathan Autrey. Ray is miserably bored and feels trapped living in the small town of Leenane. He invites the Folans to a going-away party. Maureen goes to the party and ends up coming home with Ray’s brother Pato (Branden Smith) who is visiting from London. Maureen and Pato spend the night together, and Pato tells Maureen he’s always considered her the “beauty queen” of Leenane. In the morning, the elderly Mag reveals to Pato that she had to sign out Maureen from a psychiatric hospital years ago. Pato assures Maureen his opinion of her hasn’t changed, but when he tells her to put some clothes on to keep warm, the scantily clad Maureen becomes insecure and unstable.

Comic relief

Both Dooley brothers bring a sense of normalcy and human decency to the Folan home. The character of Ray, in particular, allows for some much-needed comic relief to balance out the uncomfortableness so heavily displayed on stage. Autrey’s performance is notably exhilarating and hilarious, yet all four actors deliver strong performances. Director Joey Folsom brought out the best in the cast, and managed to block the stage in a very real and natural way. The play’s dialogue is delivered in traditional Irish vernacular, and the actors do a commendable job with the dialect.

The set depicts what one would imagine a grungy, working-class Irish apartment would look like. A picture of John and Robert Kennedy hang on the wall, another wall hanging reads, “May you be half an hour in Heaven afford the Devil knows you’re dead” — a foretelling of things to come. The kitchen is where Mag pours her urine from her portable urinal each morning and where Maureen goes to fix her mother a cup of tea, porridge or lumpy Complan — an awful powdered milk drink of some sort.

Beauty Queen is part of the Leenane Trilogy, which includes two other plays by McDonagh, who is arguably more famous for his screenwriting than his playwriting. He wrote, directed and produced Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the 2017 film starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.

There’s no doubt McDonagh paints a bleak picture of life for his characters. If Maureen had gotten the behavioral health help she needed, would she have been able to find true love with Pato? If so, what would that have meant for her mother — would Maureen and her siblings have left Mag alone and abandoned? Would Ray be happier if he had escaped Leenane like his brother did?

I fear McDonaugh did not intend to leave us with one iota of hope. In his mind, they were all destined to live miserable existences until the end of time.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time, but ultimately, it’s a tragic tale that makes you stop and think about the intersection of chasing one’s dreams and caring for family — even when they’re the spiteful sort. I left the theater wanting to hug my loved ones more than ever.