REVIEW: The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Shattered Globe)

     
     

Shattered Globe is back, better than ever

     
     

Linda Reiter (Mag) and Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Photo Credit: Kevin Viol

      
Shattered Globe Theatre presents
   
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
  
Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by
Steve Scott
at the
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through Feb 27  | 
tickets: $25 – $32  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Martin McDonagh has crafted one of drama’s greatest monster mothers, a matriarch of such suffocating dominance and staggering selfishness that she almost makes Medea look like June Cleaver. At least Medea had decency to put her children out of their misery at a fairly young age. Mag Folan, by contrast, seems to live solely to make her grown daughter Maureen’s life as close to hell on earth as one can get. It’s no wonder things get blisteringly, destructively hot in the Folan kitchen by the shocking finale of McDonagh’s tragic-comedy.

With a pair of intensely complex roles for women whose ingénue days are well behind them, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is an excellent vehicle to usher in the rebirth of Shattered Globe to the Chicago theater scene. One of the most dismaying arts stories of 2010 came with the announcement that the off-Loop powerhouse was disbanding. The dissolution surely wasn’t for lack of talent – with shows including Requiem for a Heavyweight (our review ★★★★) and Suddenly Last Summer (review ★★★★) and Days of Wine and Roses, the company consistently delivered dramatic riches.

Joseph Wiens (Pato) and Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Photo Credit: Kevin ViolMany of Shattered Globe’s best productions were anchored by the team of Linda Reiter and Eileen Niccolai, whose reunion as (respectively) mother Mag and daughter Maureen is reason for a bit of post-holiday rejoicing.

As stories of survival and sanity go, Beauty Queen’s a corker. And just when you think McDonagh has shown the plot’s full hand, the tale takes a twist that’ll stand the hair on the back of your neck on end. In those final moments, key events are called into tantalizing question, and the foundation of what you thought to be true turns out to be no firmer than shifting quicksand.

Equally disconcerting is the sudden, scary revelation McDonagh implies about the stranglehold the twin hands of fate and genetics can have on society’s most economically and emotionally vulnerable. The rich and the strong may have the means to escape heredity and circumstance. The poor and the fragile get crushed by them.

Director Steve Scott keeps a nicely controlled rein on the storytelling here: Less is infinitely more as Niccolai’s Maureen simmers in a slow but inexorable burn toward an explosion of rage. Under the ruthlessly demanding edicts of her mother, Maureen moves with precise control but has the wild-eyed, feral look of a fox desperate enough to chew off its own leg to escape the trap it is entangled in. As Mag, Reiter scrunches her face into a permanent gargoyle grimace, making the character both monstrous and pathetic – and making Maureen’s plight all the more untenable. Something has to give between mother and daughter before the last scene, and so it does, with all the violence and horror one expects from a McDonagh play.

     
Joseph Wiens (Pato) and Linda Reiter (Mag) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Photo Credit: Kevin Viol. Linda Reiter (Mag) and Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Photo Credit: Kevin Viol

Of course, Beauty Queen wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if it was a relentless grimfest. There’s more than a little humor threaded through McDonagh’s text – although humor of the dangling gallows variety to be sure. The cast is mostly up to the demands of the script, from its bleakly absurdist lighter moments to the irrevocable tragedy of its darker ones.

As Pato, the loving young man who represents Maureen’s only chance of escape, Joseph Wiens provides the narrative’s tender moments, portraying just the sort of gentle, understated and stout-hearted hero one suspects could heal Maureen’s deepest wounds. As Pato’s brother, Kevin Viol was a bit too tightly wound at the production’s final preview. Hopefully, his exaggerated jitteriness will lessen as the run continues.

Here’s hoping that run is long and prosperous for Shattered Globe, and that many more SG seasons are in store.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Kevin Viol (Ray) and  Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane running through February 27, 2011, at the Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 2, 2936 N. Southport in Chicago. Photo Credit: Roger Smart

     
     

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