The roof beams of Dirk Durossette’s charmingly rustic Irish cottage, delicately curved with a sweep suggesting spirituality, are the first of many moments of sly humor in Lantern Theater Company’s superb production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
Playwright Martin McDonagh’s predilection for extreme violence — as illustrated by his multiple-dismemberment comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore, his gun-heavy films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths and his Oscar-winning short Six Shooter — can sometimes overshadow his other calling card: quirky small-town characters, as seen in A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West (both are companion pieces to Beauty Queen and have been produced in recent Lantern seasons). These two aspects of McDonagh’s writing converged in 1996 for Beauty Queen, his first big success.
With delicious, utterly believable rural Irish accents (thanks in part to dialect coach Marla Burkholder), Mary Martello (above) and Megan Bellwoar play a mother and daughter trapped together and torturing each other as only family can.
Martello’s 70-year-old Mag plays dumb and helpless, forcing her daughter, Bellwoar’s weary 40-year-old virgin Maureen, to wait on her. The minutiae of daily life become weapons of war: Maureen stocks the house with Kimberleys, a brand of biscuits neither of them likes, just to frustrate Mag’s desire for a treat. When Mag complains about the tea and porridge Maureen prepares, Maureen ritualistically dumps them down the drain. Even setting the radio volume becomes a titanic struggle.
For the most part, though, they maintain a faint aura of civility; neither is willing or able to shatter their stalemate, though the battle is never-ending. In Bellwoar’s and Martello’s nuanced performances, the devious intentions lurking behind benign, everyday behavior are hilariously and chillingly revealed. At some points, Mag might particularly stir our sympathy, since Maureen is so often impatient with her whining — but then Martello reveals the wheels turning slyly in the old woman’s head as she concocts another passive-aggressive attack. So then maybe we feel more for Maureen, whose impatience is understandable — until we see how she purposely provokes her mother. The actresses and their characters are evenly matched, all the more so because neither fights for anything but the other’s continued misery.
Maggie Baker’s costumes subtly define these two, and Shon Causer’s eerie lighting accents their struggles effectively. I didn’t admire the production’s many delicate touches during the performance, though — I was just too caught up in the story.
Two brothers become catalysts and collateral damage in the family conflict. Sean Lally plays jittery dimwit Ray, whose admiration of Mag’s stout fireplace poker evokes Chekhov’s maxim: “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” (Though Chekhov never had as much devious, chatty fun with a pistol as McDonagh does with Ray’s exuberant admiration for that damn poker.)
Ray’s brother Pato (Charlie Del-Marcelle, in a heartbreakingly sincere performance) becomes Maureen’s shining hope and long-overdue opportunity for escape, but circumstances — chiefly Mag and Maureen’s shocking brutality toward each other, which finally explodes into McDonagh’s trademark explicitly creepy violence — tragically confounds their dreams.
There’s humor here, though the suspense and shocks of Kathryn MacMillan’s production ultimately strangle our laughs. But rather than the comic and the horrific contradicting one another, they build together. Beauty Queen provides true horror. There’s none of film’s ridiculous splatter-gore, startling camera tricks or cartoonishly one-dimensional portrayals of evil. There’s just the genuine terror of being trapped with one’s mortal enemy, frightened and alone, with existence at stake. MacMillan and her terrific cast perform this not like a genre piece, but as the masterful human drama it is.
Beauty Queen isn’t easy to take — and it’s not to be missed.
Through Feb. 10, $10-$38, St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow St., 215-829-0395, lanterntheater.org.