‘Beauty Queen of Leenane’: Northlight revives McDonagh play with a light touch

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Kate Fry (left) and Wendy Robie star in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” at Northlight Theatre. | MICHAEL BROSILOW

The dark and darkly funny mother-daughter drama “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” premiered in 1996 and quickly put playwright Martin McDonagh on the worldwide map, as it were. McDonagh followed with a steady flow of entertaining plays, mostly set in Ireland where his parents were born and which he visited regularly from England, where he grew up. He also has written and directed a couple of films, most recently Oscar winner “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

‘THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE’ ★★★ When: Through April 22 Where: Northlight Theater, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie Tickets: $30 – $81 Info: northlight.org Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” premiered in Chicago in 1999 at Steppenwolf, starring Laurie Metcalf, and has frequently been revived, as it is now by Northlight Theatre, which has produced its share of McDonagh works over the years. Despite the distance of time between them, you can detect the same voice behind both this play and “Three Billboards,” even beyond the fact that, as with most of his titles, geography features prominently. McDonagh has always been a clever craftsman of twisty yarns, drawn to tales of remote small towns where everybody knows too much about everyone else. And you can see that he’s always been strong at crafting phenomenal female characters, some of the best roles of their kind, whose justified resentments live on the verge of overflowing.

In “Beauty Queen,” that fiery resentment comes in the form of Maureen Folan (Kate Fry), a 40-year-old spinster stuck at home with her outrageously demanding, house-bound, frequently vicious, 70-year-old mother Mag (Wendy Robie). Mag spends her days in her rocking chair (an image that can’t help evoking Samuel Beckett’s haunting short play “Rockaby”), watching TV and demanding that Maureen make her “Complan” – a powdered drink – and porridge. Maureen, who has kissed two men in her life, desperately wants more. She has taken to musing aloud to her mother about how she’d like to see her die. Dysfunction has turned to genuine mutual meanness, but at least there’s an equilibrium, until a potential romantic interest for Maureen unexpectedly returns to the scenic but economically depressed Leenane.

Director BJ Jones’ production is solid and makes interesting choices about some lighter elements of the play, but rarely becomes as deeply menacing as it could be. Both Fry and Robie are terrific – believable, honest actors always – but on opening night the electricity between them didn’t always sizzle. For example, there’s a scene where Maureen notices Mag is acting oddly and can tell, by staring in her eyes, that she’s holding back something big. The scene requires their entire history to be played at once, for us to feel Maureen’s capacity to read her mother like a book. Key moments pass quickly, the familial ability to shred all efforts at camouflage coming off more as contrivance than scary reality.

Bringing a lighter touch to the play, Jones and his designers avoid emphasizing the noirish atmospherics of other productions. Todd Rosenthal’s set – a roofless living space with water damage on the walls, cabinets showing exaggerated wear, and the linoleum creeping over the edge of the stage like moss – is most often lit by JR Lederle in an unshaded daytime brightness, as if there really were no roof. A storm sometimes expressionistically emphasized here seems like a minor shower.

All that said, the compelling story comes across, and performances can be subtle and beautiful, such as Fry’s multi-leveled aggressiveness and insecurity when Maureen brings home Pato Dooley (Nathan Hosner, with a properly keyed semi-worldly innocence) for a night of passion. And when Robie toys with Pato’s younger brother Ray (Casey Morris), a usually thankless role of a dutiful messenger that here comes off as the best expression of Leenane’s power over a person.

Morris’ Ray is a caged kid (although an adult) who can’t stay still and repeats all his long-held resentments every time he appears. It’s a convincing and funny performance, somewhere in between realistically exaggerated and stylized. But since Ray is the least emotionally invested character, the fact that his scenes come off as centerpieces doesn’t quite reflect the right balance of light and dark. Good thing McDonagh is good at both.

Steven Oxman is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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