May 15 2013 12:00 AM

Irish comedy crackles with dark charm


It feels twisted that “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” opened Mother’s Day weekend. Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic play is an unsparing portrait of a severely dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship perfect for Riverwalk Theatre’s blackbox — just not for mothers. 

Between the thick Irish accents and the echo-y nature of the space, that it takes a little time before you can understand Abby Murphy, who plays Maureen Folan, and Jan Lockwood, as her mother, Mag. Their dry banter initially sounds impenetrable, but five minutes in, your ears adjust — just in time for Maureen to detail her fantasy of chopping off Mag’s head after she requests hot tea and porridge. 

“That’s a mean dream, Maureen,” says Mag.

When Maureen meets Pato Dooley (Blake Bowen) at a small-town ball, Maureen finally sees a positive future away from her manipulative mother, but fate in this case has a very dark sense of humor. 

A large part of the show´s energy comes from Murphy and Bowen — particularly during their too brief scene of charming, yet awkward, flirtation. Murphy and Bowen last electrified the stage in the Over the Ledge Theatre Co.’s production of“Apartment 3A.” Then, as now, the tender, natural agility of these two actors somehow stops time. Bowen’s brilliant monologue in the second act foreshadows a powerfully heartbreaking scene at the end delivered by Murphy. 

Lockwood provides a nice balance to Murphy, at times serving to justify Maureen’s resentment toward her and other times playing the victim. Much of the back-and-forth balancing comes from McDonagh’s script, which puts the audience in the precarious position of vacillating between the lesser of two distinct evils. Do the deplorable actions of the mother even remotely justify the awful actions of the daughter, or vice versa? It’s a question the play forces the audience to resolve.

Joseph Mull, as Pato’s brother Ray, serves as comic relief/fated messenger —the Friar Lawrence of Connemara, if you will. 

McDonagh’s script — like good Shakespeare — offers far more nuance than this production discovers. But it’s also extremely generous, and director John Roche ensures his cast and crew hit the essential beats. Unlike Shakespeare’s arguably epic tragedies, “Beauty Queen” is an intimate tale of ordinary people. It’s those elements, the final plot twists, and this great cast that make the final scenes so devastating and artistically satisfying.

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane”
Riverwalk Theatre
Through May 19
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Riverwalk Theatre, 
228 Museum Drive, Lansing
$12/$10 seniors