LENOX -- Ironies -- most of them cruel, some of them wrenching -- abound in Martin McDonagh’s gritty, tough "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," not the least of them the play’s title.
It refers to Maureen Folan (played with aching, at times, poignancy by Elizabeth Aspenlieder in a shrewdly crafted production at Shakespeare & Company’s Bernstein Theatre), a 40-year-old virgin on the brink of spinsterhood, whose grip on life slips away before our eyes as she is caught between a grim certainty and a tenuous promise.
That promise is Pato Dooley (a winning and appealing David Sedgwick), a decent, hard-working man who has left Leenane to work construction in London where, as an Irishman, he is isolated and made to feel unwanted. He hooks up with Maureen during a brief return visit to Leenane and falls for her. Later, in a letter he writes to her from London, he asks her to join him in Boston, where a good opportunity awaits him, after she has settled her affairs in Leenane. To Pato, she is the beauty queen of Leenane, his beauty queen of Leenane. The sobriquet catches her unexpectedly. Beauty of any kind is stranger in Maureen’s humble life.
Plain, humiliated and defeated by her experience 15 years earlier working as a cleaning woman in London, Maureen has been left by her long-since married sisters to look after their self-pitying, self-serving, cruelly manipulative mother, Mag (played with petulant, childish, tantrum-throwing self-indulgence by a technically proficient Tina Packer), who will do whatever it takes to see to it that Maureen snatches defeat from the jaws of victory in nearly all aspects of her life.
Theirs is a mutually dependent relationship marked by deceit, lies and cruel, brutally damaging violence -- emotional as well as physical. It’s a relationship that takes no prisoners, including Pato’s brother, Ray (quite wonderfully played by Edmund Donovan), a young, impatient, essentially uncomplicated young man with no personal agenda who becomes a useful tool for Pato, Maureen and, most critically, Mag.
Matthew Penn has directed "Beauty Queen" with a deft, sure hand and a keen understanding of McDonagh’s insights and his virtuoso ability to bring us to legitimate moments of laughter only to catch us up short with the realization of what it is that is making us laugh.
In a delicate, carefully calibrated performance, Aspenlieder poignantly navigates the powerful currents of Maureen’s fragile emotions that carry her, in the end, to a place from which there is no coming back. That Aspenlieder’s Maureen doesn’t quite get as good as she gives to Packer’s Mag, while not a fatal weakness, is enough to spell the difference between a production that is solidly crafted and one that lingers long in the memory.