The Beauty Queen of Leenane

In the small Irish town of Leenane there is a woman named Maureen Folan who has a history of mental illness and who lives alone with her demanding, aged mother, Mag. An opportunity to leave this dead-end existence comes in the form of a fellow named Pato Dooley, who takes an interest in plain ol’ Maureen. But will Mag tolerate such an intrusion on their life?

Sounds like a grand setup for a comedy, as the mom and the potential son-in-law engage in a battle of wits, but are eventually reconciled and everyone is happy. At least, that’s one way it could have been done.

Another way — and certainly the more unusual, compelling way — is the path chosen by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.” Watching this show at Salt Lake Acting Company, one gets the feeling that McDonagh had no greater intention than to disturb us, and that he takes great, dark pride in succeeding. The play is funny at times (though darkly so), but ultimately devastatingly tragic and awful. And yet, you’re not sorry you saw it. Even as you walk out into the night pondering the dreadfulness of what these characters have done to each other, and what the unseen repercussions are going to be, there’s a strange sense of exhilaration, like you’ve just had one heck of a great theater experience.

Directed by Kevin Myhre, the Tony-winning “Leenane” is making its regional debut at SLAC, and it’s one to be proud of. As Maureen Folan, Joyce Cohen exudes plainness and quiet desperation in her claustrophobic setting, while still remaining Irish and feisty (that “feistiness” takes over, eventually…).

Marilyn Holt’s performance as her mother is textured, going beyond the stereotypical “demanding-old-parent” routine. Her demands are not unreasonable, nor does she mistreat her daughter. She genuinely loves her and their drab little life together in what appears to be the Irish equivalent of America’s Deep South.

Don Glover is sympathetic as Maureen’s suitor, Pato, particularly in a monologue in which he recites a letter he has written to her. Also serviceable is Chris Sontag-Ratti as Pato’s brother and occasional message-deliverer. He also provides much of the comic relief.

The Irish dialects are good throughout — almost too good, since sometimes you can’t quite understand what they’re saying. They lend realism to a play that is, alas, all too real in its examination of what people are capable of.

This is the first part in the "Leenane" trilogy. I saw the third part, "Lonesome West," on Broadway several months before seeing this one, and I loved it. "Lonesome West" was definitely funnier, though just about as dark, too.

All of McDonagh's plays take place in rural Ireland, where the dialect makes the swearing different from what we're used to. For example, the F-word comes out as "feck," which is very funny-sounding to me.