After four and a half months
in New York with her Off-Broadway triumph, "Women of Will," Tina Packer has come home to the theater company she co-founded 36 years ago in a play she freely acknowledges makes her feel anything but at home.

"It takes it out of me," she says of rehearsing and performing the role of Mag, the deviously manipulative mother in Martin McDonagh’s dark, dark comedy-drama, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," which opens tonight at 8:30 in Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre after a week of previews.

She’s not the only one. Mattew Penn, who is directing Packer, Elizabeth Aspenlieder and company newcomers Edmund Donovan and David Sedgwick, says he can’t recall ever leaving rehearsals for a play feeling as exhausted as he has here.

"There’s not a scene in this play that’s easy. Each scene goes into the viscera," Penn said during a pre-rehearsal interview in the Bernstein’s backstage Green Room, where he was joined by Packer and Aspenlieder,

First produced in February 1996 at Town Hall Theatre in Galway, Ireland, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" moved to the Upstairs Royal Court Theatre in London one month later. Atlantic Theatre Company in New York gave the play its U.S. premiere in February 1996 in a critically praised production that moved to Broadway, where it won three Tonys.

The play was given a reading at Shakespeare & Company’s 2012 Studio Series.

"Audiences loved it," Packer said, agreeing to continue with it if it was fully produced this season.

During their work on a project for Berkshire Playwrights Lab, which Penn co-founded, Aspenlieder approached him with the idea of directing "Leenane" at Shakespeare & Company.

"She gave me the script one day in December," Penn said. "I read it that night and called her the next day."

Set in the small town of Leenane in Ireland’s Connemara, County Galway, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" tracks the often violent can-you-top-this back-and-forth that is the complex relationship between Maureen Folan (Aspenlieder), a 40-year-old virgin on the edge of spinsterhood, and her ailing seventy-something mother, Mag (Packer), bitter, angry, resentful and

with even fewer options than Maureen, who left Leenane once, for London, but with decidedly unhappy consequences while her older sister, who doesn’t appear in the play, has left and built a new life.

"This play has the darkest of dark humor," Penn said. "You see something so perversely funny between these two but only if the tragedy is working."

Packer freely admits the challenge of playing Mag is almost overwhelming.

"With Shakespeare," she said, "there’s always the poetry to sustain you no matter how vile the deed you are committing.

"You don’t have that support here. Moreover, I hate bullying people and [Mag] is so good at it."

"As Maureen," Aspenlieder said, "I feel my spirit has been broken, that Mag has succeeded in breaking my spirit."

So, when an opportunity comes, Maureen seizes it.

"Sometimes," Aspenlieder says of the relationship between Maureen and Mag, "it feels like a runaway train and yet we fall into what we know. It’s a twisted normalcy.

"Intimacy for us [Maureen and Mag] is fighting [often with violent consequences]; fighting is our connection. There are constant jabs and fractures. We do that to each other."

"Conversation between us doesn’t have any meaning unless I am cutting down Maureen," Packer says.

There is one avenue of hope for Maureen -- a good-looking local man about her age, named Pato [played by Sedgwick], who is leaving for Boston and wants Maureen to go with him.

"You have to believe in the essence of goodness in Pato’s offer to Maureen," Penn says. "He’s not the kind of man who would come to her door and say ‘I love you.’ "

The way Penn sees it, Maureen translates love with Pato into escape.

"If you feel that this is escape for Maureen," Penn says, "that this is her last way out, then everything that follows falls into place.

"Certainly the play does pose an interesting question at the end."

Aspenlieder has been a member of Shakespeare & Company for 18 years -- as actress, artistic associate and communications director all at once. In that time, she and Packer have had an involved personal and professional relationship -- employer-employee, mentor-student, director-actress, smother-daughter, sister-sister. "Beauty Queen" is the first time they have acted together.

"The [rehearsal] room is filled with respect and admiration," Aspenlieder said.

"It’s not an easy mountain to climb. Every day is different."