The 1996 play secured the Anglo Irish playwright’s reputation as Ireland’s shrewdest demystifier of pastoral Gaelic life. In works such as “The Cripple of Inishmaan” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” he would make tasty mincemeat of other ideas of Ireland in the popular imagination, the Irelands of beguiling eccentricity and wretched acts of terrorism. But it is the morbid darkness of “Beauty Queen” and its sour mashing of rural Irish quaintness — enshrined by John Millington Synge and other earlier dramatists — that stamp it as McDonagh’s fiercest and finest Irish-themed play.
Distinguished by Kimberly Gilbert’s brittle turn as Maureen, the pitiable daughter turning 40 and stewing in a chafing detente with her selfish, small-minded mother (Sarah Marshall), this “Beauty Queen” confidently unfolds the story’s gothic underpinnings. It’s a harrowing little horror story packaged as satire, and under director Jeremy Skidmore’s excellent guidance, the production elicits the gasps that McDonagh goes after. Familiarity in these benighted quarters breeds something more ferocious than mere contempt.
And Gilbert, in a performance that confirms her development into an actress of beguiling range and reliability, envelops Maureen in an aura of growth potential that gives us hope for her happiness. If only she can flee that dungeon of a cottage designer Tony Cisek has built for her and Marshall’s Mag! We’re prompted by Gilbert to want to believe — as we do for Laura in “The Glass Menagerie” — that there really might be Life After Mother.
“Beauty Queen” is so rooted in Emerald Isle turf, so hellbent on upending our preconceptions about Irish identity, that a convincing look and sound for the production is a fundamental requirement. Costume designer Frank Labovitz has done his part, dressing the women and the two men in the cast, Todd Scofield and Joe Mallon, in the humdrum duds of unfashionable provinciality. But dialect coach Leigh Wilson Smiley might want to engage in some triage; at times, the cast is presenting late-stage symptoms of Wandering Accent Syndrome. Fatal this condition isn’t, yet there are instances in which an audience becomes conscious of voices groping for the proper vowel sound.
Standoffs between mothers and daughters observe no national borders, of course. “Beauty Queen” taps gleefully into this universal reservoir of love and hate. (In this case, though, mostly hate.) In their isolated domicile, unmarried Maureen is cook and caretaker for bottomlessly needy Mag, who languishes in her rocker, malevolently thinking up acts of servitude for Maureen. An emptier existence one is hard-pressed to devise: Even Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon can console themselves with the daily illusion that Godot might save them from their ennui.
Maureen’s illusions are, at last, stoked by the arrival of a possible beau: Scofield’s Pato, who’s back for a visit from his job as a laborer in England. The accomplished Scofield provides yet another of his well-pitched portrayals, imbuing Pato with a gentle warmth, on display most convincingly in the sweet monologue that launches the second act. He finds in Pato a wholly compassionate counterpoint to Gilbert’s restive awkwardness.
But is either of them a match for conniving, bubble-bursting Mag? Marshall bunches her lips up in an ornery frown, chewing on the inside of her mouth and looking for Mag’s moment to dash her daughter’s dreams. I’m not sure it’s possible to overexaggerate the mean-spiritedness consuming Mag whenever she feels a threat to her comfort and sense of control; I only wish Marshall would let her inner monster fully out and rein in her natural gift for comedy. It might unleash in the audience a more exhilarating magnitude of fear and loathing.
There comes a point in “Beauty Queen” at which we feel repulsed — and despite ourselves maybe a tiny bit avenged — by the macabre turn events take. Skidmore, who impressively orchestrated the priceless Grand Guignol of “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” in a 2008 Signature Theatre production, handles this sequence with directorial aplomb: watching Maureen reach ominously for the volume knob on an ancient radio is as sure to enlarge the pit in your stomach as it is to crank up the treacly Irish folk music.
“Beauty Queen” is a tricky piece because of the drastic shifts in tone, from sardonic to chilling and back again. (Mallon contributes a colorful supporting performance as Pato’s oafish brother, Ray, a disastrously inept conveyor of messages between Pato and Maureen.) So please avail yourself, and brace yourself, for the virtuosic turbulence of one of modern theater’s most giddily diabolical minds.
The Beauty Queen
by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Dan Covey; sound, Eric Shimelonis; fight choreography, Joe Isenberg; dialects, Leigh Wilson Smiley; dramaturg, Marie Sproul. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Sept. 15 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.