North Carolina Stage Company opens its 8th season with a gamble. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is hardly guaranteed to please. Its many awards in New York and elsewhere notwithstanding, the play is about as far from feel-goodism as it is possible to get. Doing a play like this in a nonprofit, professional theatre is risky business, especially in “lean times,” when American audiences have traditionally preferred entertainment that offers some form of escape.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane, by contrast, is all about the futility of every attempt to escape. The action is set in rural Ireland in the 1990s, and centers on the toxic relationship between a manipulative 70-year-old woman and her daughter, a 40-ish spinster with a history of mental illness who cares for her. “Cares” may not be quite the right word here. In any event, the play offers a strange and disturbing mix of melodrama, black comedy and full-on horror, with a result that amounts to a very bleak view of life indeed.
This is exactly the kind of thing for which the play’s young author, the much-celebrated Irish playwright and now screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh, is famous. Imagine having Quentin Tarantino and Lars Von Trier collaborate on a version of James Joyce’s Dubliners, and you’ll get the idea. In short: not the sort of thing for a Sunday matinee with the kids. Nor the sort of thing one expects from a theatre company which, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, had begun of late to drift toward lighter fare.
The show succeeds brilliantly. I’ve rarely seen so felicitous a combination of script, acting, directing and design elements in a theatre production here in Asheville. I was quite literally on the edge of my seat for much of the show, so masterfully is the play structured by McDonagh and so strongly interpreted by director Angie Flynn-McIver and her actors and designers. The depth, complexity, and moral complicity of the characters and their relationships are as fascinating as they are disturbing; and thanks to a cast of actors who handle subtleties of motive and emotion as skillfully as they do the Irish dialect, we never for a moment doubt that these people are real.
Michael MacCauley, who plays an aging beau and who is a familiar face at N.C. Stage, is in top form here. He somehow manages at one and the same time to convey the melancholy sparkle of a ladies’ man past his prime, and the awkward over-politeness of a working-class lad who was “brought up right.” The leads, Carol Mayo Jenkins and Anne Thibault, embody their parts with a degree of realism that is downright creepy, and their dialogue is rendered with the scarcely perceptible venom of two people who have lived together co-dependently for years, and every minute of it in pure loathing. The youngest member of the cast, Casey Morris, rounds out (or squares off) the cast as the beau’s younger brother, a harmless neighborhood tough. Morris is currently a senior at UNCA, and yet he makes an impressive showing in the same league as the much more experienced professional cast members. He is someone to watch.
There are things to quibble with about the production—even about the script itself. I found some of the sound design choices a bit “cinematic” — or rather, the sound was often used cinematically, i.e. in the manner of a soundtrack to guide the audience’s emotional response to a scene. This is not only distracting but unnecessary. (Believe me, the audience knows what to feel in this play without any outside help.) And McDonagh, in my view, takes perhaps a bit too much pleasure as a playwright in tricking his audience and dashing their hopes — almost to the point of a kind of emotional sadism. But none of this really matters here. N.C. Stage’s production is an impressive and compelling theatrical event and a most welcome contribution to the performing arts here in Asheville. You won’t want to miss it. And with Sam Shephard’s True West and Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone coming down the pipe, you might want to just go ahead and buy a season ticket.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane, by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Angie Flynn-McIver. Starring Carol Mayo Jenkins, Anne Thibault, Michael MacCauley, and Casey Morris. Set Design by Rob Bowen. Lighting Design by Hallie Gray. Costume Design by Deborah Austin. Sound Design by Jason Waggoner. Production Stage Manager: Connie Silver. Show runs through Sunday, Nov. 8 at N.C. Stage in downtown Asheville. Visit www.ncstage.org or call 239-0263 for performance schedule and ticket information.