AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Mark Jackson
Presented by Marin Theatre Company
Boyer Theatre
397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, CA / (415) 388-5208

Reviewed by Judy Richter

In "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," a mother and daughter are caught in a web of dependence, distrust, manipulation and antipathy. The Marin Theatre Company production catches most of those undertones in this 1996 drama by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. It also undermines several other aspects of what should be a riveting play.

The action takes place during the mid-1990s in a small, rundown cottage in the tiny Irish town of Leenane, County Galway. The mother is the widowed, 70-year-old Mag (Joy Carlin), who recites a litany of physical ailments both real and imagined. Her spinster daughter is 40-year-old Maureen (Beth Wilmurt). Mag is controlling yet dependent on Maureen. For her part, Maureen seems to have no other options in their economically distressed village.

Her fortunes appear to take a turn for the better when she and a neighbor, Pato Dooley (Rod Gnapp), connect romantically. He affectionately calls her the beauty queen of Leenane, but her dreams are dashed when Mag intervenes, leading to a tragic ending.

Carlin effectively portrays Mag's wiliness, neediness and approaching dementia. For the most part, Wilmurt conveys Maureen's emotional roller coaster as well as her underlying mental instability, but some of the character's vulnerability is missing. Gnapp does well as Pato, the play's most decent, likable character. His monologue that opens Act 2 captures those qualities in a letter that he writes to Maureen from England, where he has gone to work in construction.

The play's weakest link is Joseph Salazar as Pato's younger brother, Ray, a selfish, boorish lout who taunts both Mag and Maureen. As directed by Mark Jackson, however, he talks so fast in his Irish accent that he's often unintelligible. That's a problem because Ray plays an important, though somewhat unwitting role in the play's outcome. Salazar also looks too clean-cut for the character.

The cottage set by Nina Ball dilutes some of the play's power because its back wall is open, thus minimizing the claustrophobic atmosphere that's so integral in the Mag-Maureen relationship. It also lacks an entry door, so the actors go through the motions of opening and closing it, augmented by Matt Stines' sound design. Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes and York Kennedy's lighting are satisfactory.

Bay Area theatergoers who didn't see Berkeley Repertory Theatre's brilliant 1999 production or San Jose Stage Company's excellent 2002 production might underestimate the power of McDonagh's award-winning play mainly because of some of director Jackson's choices That's unfortunate.

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