Posted Online: Oct. 03, 2012, 10:38 am

'Beauty Queen' is biting in humor and pathos

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

Photo: Submitted
New Ground Theatre's 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' features Erik Finch and Melissa Anderson Clark.
Mag Folan probably doesn't get any Mother's Day gifts. You can see why in the outstanding New Ground Theatre production of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane."

As played with steely intensity and withering contempt by Susan Perrin-Sallak, the selfish and manipulative 70-year-old has a urinary-tract infection. Mag has a daily habit of dumping her urine from a tin pail into the kitchen sink, and doesn't even rinse it. This is one of many reasons her harried daughter Maureen can't stand her.

The 40-year-old virgin, who's never found true love, is basically a slave to her bitter, hateful mother, who mostly sits in her rocking chair in front of the TV, complaining, with a permanent scowl etched on her face. We feel the palpable, ever-present tension and frustration of the unappreciated Maureen, authentically personified by Melissa Anderson Clark.

The 1996 Martin McDonagh play -- which won four Tony Awards and is the first of a trilogy -- is a biting blend of black comedy, melodrama, horror and inexorable 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 mother.

The four-character play takes place entirely in Mag's shabby kitchen, resulting in a claustrophobic sense of entrapment. Maureen openly fantasizes about killing Mag to win her freedom. Then Maureen caustically imagines Mag will live forever, just to spite her. Maureen regrets the life she's missed while being stuck in this house.

Much of the genuine humor of the show comes from Mag's overbearing demands, her occasional forgetfulness, and scenes with Ray, played with pent-up and often explosive anger by the director, David Turley. Ray is the "bad boy" brother of Pato, an old high-school classmate of Maureen who returns from England. The play's title comes from his nickname for Maureen.

There is a sweet, blooming romance between Maureen and Pato, played with natural sympathy and poignancy by Erik Finch, a Davenport native who recently moved back to the Quad-Cities from Kansas City, where he was active in theater. Pato stays the night; they revel in their good times; and Ms. Anderson Clark smiles warmly and winningly (a rarity in this play).

There's an awkward scene the next morning between Mag and Pato, and Maureen gleefully parades around in her black slip, to the horror of her mother. They torment each other. As Mr. Turley said after the show, "They're both monsters, in their own way."

There is a troubling back story of Maureen's past mental illness, which shockingly returns late in the play. At the top of the second act, Pato reads a confessional letter to Maureen as he pens it in England, and asks her to move to America with him.

There's a key plot point revolving around what happens to that long letter. Ray waits with Mag to give it to Maureen (though I don't know why Pato couldn't have just mailed it directly). When Maureen thinks Mag knows something about the situation, we descend into a shattering, chilling final two scenes.

What also contributes to the stunning realism of the play is the finely detailed set and sensitive lighting by designer Michael McPeters. This kitchen is fully stocked and looks fully lived-in. Even the wood-burning stove, which plays a pivotal role in the story, looks realistic. Pre-show Irish music and a handout explaining the play's unfamiliar words and references also are helpful.

While Ms. Perrin-Sallak is an expert New Ground veteran, Ms. Anderson Clark, who's done mostly musicals in the area, is honing her dramatic chops in an electrifying way. She also memorably appeared on the Village Theatre stage last fall in the dark comedy "God of Carnage."

New Ground, which is now in its 12th season, consistently, courageously presents high-quality, challenging contemporary plays that often are difficult to watch. I'm all for carefree, feel-good theater, but New Ground shows us life as it's actually lived, with all its messiness and problems. That frequent sense of unpredictability, raw dread and impending doom can induce nail-biting excitement in audiences. And that forceful fearlessness displayed by actors should be applauded.




If you go

-- What: "The Beauty Queen of Leenane."
-- When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.
-- 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 newgroundtheatre.org.