Posted Online: Sept. 26, 2012, 11:12 am

Dark comedy, tragedy mingle in New Ground play

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By Jonathan Turner,

Photo: Submitted
New Ground Theatre's 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' features, from left, Melissa Anderson-Clark, Erik Finch and Susan Perrin-Sallak.
Home is where the hell is for Maureen Folan, a 40-year-old Irish spinster who takes care of her selfish and manipulative mother in New Ground Theatre's latest production, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane."

The 1996 Martin McDonagh play -- which won four Tony Awards -- is a blend of black comedy, melodrama, horror and tragedy. In the story, set in the Irish village of Leenane, Maureen's sisters have escaped into marriage and family life, but she is trapped in a seriously dysfunctional relationship with her bitter 70-year-old mother, Mag.

The four-character play takes place entirely in Mag's shabby, poorly lit kitchen, resulting in a claustrophobic sense of entrapment, director David Turley said recently.

"It was one of the first professional shows I saw, in Virginia, in 2000. It was just so powerful," he said. "I was amazed at how dark it was, and still so funny. I have always wanted to revisit it."

"It's something parents and children can kind of relate to, maybe not to such an extreme," Mr. Turley said. "We have to take care of our parents, and you start feeling exhausted. Your life has become what their life was, and it's hard. She definitely feels trapped."

He described Maureen (played by Melissa Anderson-Clark) as "sort of the 40-year-old virgin; she's never had a relationship."

Her father is never mentioned in the play, but Mr. Turley assumes he got fed up with Mag (Susan Perrin-Sallak), leaving her with their three kids, which left her hostile and unpleasant. "She has lots of physical ailments; she is just a mean person," the director said. "You feel for Maureen having to deal with this woman day in and day out."

The Folan cottage is visited by Pato Dooley (Erik Finch) and his younger brother Ray (played by Mr. Turley). A former high-school classmate of Maureen, Pato is a middle-aged construction worker fed up with having to live and work in England, disappointed by the limitations and loneliness of his life. The day-to-day sameness is also tedious for Ray, a nonthreatening "bad boy."

The glimmer of romance between Maureen and Pato sparks in the first act and continues in the second, Mr. Turley said. The plot is full of deceptions, secrets and betrayals interspersed with turnabouts, he said. The play gets its title from the nickname Pato gives Maureen.

A 2011 review in The Guardian said: "McDonagh's gift for extended gags, seemingly innocuous scraps of dialogue building up to savagely ironic punchlines, and sly, sadistic details that are unnecessary, appalling, yet curiously entertaining. This is a world in which people discuss priests punching babies and men slicing the ears off dogs as easily as they compare the merits of shortbread..."

A 2011 review in the New Times (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) noted that Mr. McDonagh's debut, like most of his subsequent work -- "The Pillowman," "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," and "A Behanding in Spokane" -- thrives on "an uneasy tension of shocking humor and bleak violence, perpetrated by desperate people with nothing to lose. McDonagh's protagonists often seem to have been at the end of their ropes for so long they're barely holding on, waiting for the collapse when they let go.

"Maureen regularly jokes about murdering Mag (humor that changes its tone once we learn about Maureen's past), but violence also colors the periphery of 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane,' where talk of a serial killer darkens the local news," the review said.

Mr. Turley, who has acted in recent years in The District Theatre's "Tuna Christmas" and Harrison Hilltop's "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," took the role of Ray because the actor originally cast had to withdraw.

The veteran of directing musicals -- including "King and I" at Countryside and "Company" and "Chicago" at District Theatre -- hasn't helmed a straight play in many years, and this is his first for New Ground. "I've forgotten how much fun they are," Mr. Turley said.

The October slot for the past three years at New Ground has featured acclaimed dark comedies. Two years ago it was "August: Osage County," and last year was "God of Carnage," which co-starred Ms. Anderson-Clark -- who also has performed locally in mostly musicals, including "Sunday in the Park With George," "The Drowsy Chaperone," "All Shook Up" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Ms. Perrin-Sallak is a New Ground veteran, with credits including "Mr. Marmalade," "And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson," "Souvenir" and "'night, Mother."

If you go

-- What: "The Beauty Queen of Leenane."
-- When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Oct. 5 and 6, 2 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 7.
-- Where: The Village Theatre, 2113 E. 11th St., Village of East Davenport.
-- Tickets: $18, $15 for students and seniors. Call (563) 326-7529 or go to