The setup of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" couldn't seem more tender: In an Irish mountain village, Maureen Folan, the fair miss of the title, cares for Mag, her getting-on-in-years mum, who likes to sit in her favorite chair with a blanket over her lap. Maureen cooks her mother porridge on their wood-burning stove, and they pass the time listening to the radio.
Maureen also tells Mag stories -- her favorite being a most graphic daydream in which Maureen lures a murderer to their shabby home to do away with the old bat for good. When Mag points out that the criminal would probably kill Maureen, too, the fed-up daughter decides that it'd be an acceptable price to pay.
So the Folans aren't quite the happy family after all. And in the Keegan Theatre's production of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," the bile is particularly strong. "Beauty Queen" is the first of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's Leenane trilogy ("A Skull in Connemara" and "The Lonesome West" complete it); all three works focus on relationships strained by life in the rural town.
In McDonagh's world, humor and hostility go hand in hand, with characters who often are as goofy ("Lonesome West's" figurine-obsessed brother, for example) as they are discontent. But although there are moments of levity in the "Beauty Queen" script, audience members may initially be too much on edge to laugh. In the production's opening scenes, director Mark A. Rhea keeps the volume high, regardless of the topic, for the interactions between the lonely 40-year-old Maureen (Nanna Ingvarsson), the mean, privacy-invading Mag (Linda High) and even their teenage neighbor, Ray Dooley (Joe Baker). Maureen yells about the Irish economy, Mag yells for Ray to pull the door shut when he leaves, Ray screams back that he was going to do that anyway.
Just when the fever pitch is becoming grating and, worse, unbelievable, a little romance quiets all the bitterness -- and it's actually this brief ray of hope that ends up delivering the play's most powerful wallop. Ray's successful older brother, Pato (Scott Graham), comes back into town, and during his visit he tells Maureen that she's always been the one.
Not that the affair brings sunshine to the Folan household for long, of course. But in between "Beauty Queen's" overly charged beginning and its devastating ending, McDonagh and the cast deftly show that there's more complexity to these characters than it seems. Both Ingvarsson and High play their roles with maximum rage, practically hissing at each other as even routine events take an angry edge ("Suck down the lumps!" Maureen says when Mag complains about her broth). But for all their characters' nastiness, each actress also manages moments of sympathy as McDonagh makes it increasingly unclear which of the women is the more manipulative and vile.
Keegan's production is slightly deflated by scene changes that are a bit too leisurely and accompanied by odd musical choices -- Buddy Holly's "Oh Boy" and the Beatles' "Twist and Shout" don't exactly convey deep-seated resentment. Then again, battle-weary theatergoers might be grateful for the cheery breaks.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane, by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Mark A. Rhea. Lighting, Dan Martin; sound, Tony Angelini; costumes, Maggie Butler; set, George Lucas. Approximately two hours. Through July 23 at Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 703-527-6000 or visit www.keegantheatre.com.