Gotta admit: I thought The Beauty Queen of Leenane was going to be heinous. Now, yes, part of that is that I’m a bitch who side-eyes small theater productions where heavy, consistent accents are a must (I’ve seen some “me mither and me fither went down to the staaaaare” shit in my day) and part of it is that this production seemed to have an Irish curse. The heating units broke at Spotlighters (during the coldest winter on record!) and still haven’t shipped. One of the lead actresses for Leenane had to be hospitalized and her replacement got three rehearsals. The entire opening weekend was cancelled. One goddamned thing after another. Joke’s on me, though, because the show wasn’t heinous. It wasn’t even bad. In fact. Y’all. It was good. Of course, this is a comedy in the Irish style, which means it would be called a “tragedy” anywhere else. Mother and middle-aged daughter Mag and Maureen Folan (Valerie Lash and Kat McKerrow) live together in a claustrophobic little cottage in County Galway, Ireland. Maureen is moody and snappish with her elderly, grasping mother, who constantly wheedles her for medicated tea, porridge and demands to basically stay trapped with her until the end of one of their lives. It would be enough to drive anyone crazy, but Maureen has a little head start on that as evidenced by her alluded-to stay at an English mental health facility. One day a “gasser” from up the road, Ray Dooley (Mason Catharini) drops by and mentions to Mag that his brother, Pato (Michael Page), is having a going away party. The old lady tries to keep the shindig secret, fearful that her little girl/servant will somehow find a golden ticket out, but Maureen catches on and the lovebirds end up back at the house exchanging all kinds of fluids. Mag kicks into high survival gear and tries to gaslight Maureen into thinking that Pato doesn’t care for her by burning his letters. This turns out to be a bad move on her part as it causes Maureen’s anger and repression to explode, big time. I will say it straight off: the breakout here is Kat McKerrow (I mean, with a name like that, tho, right?). Her turn as the ill-fated Maureen is a dazzling, brilliant, emerald jewel of a performance. There are some actors who you just know are putting their entire self, their entire gorgeous, vulnerable, trembling selves, into a role and she, here, is one of them. Maureen is a layered, considered study that in no way feels laborious. On the contrary, McKerrow is completely and disturbingly natural – sexy and fascinating and dangerous. A late Act 2 scene finds her monologuing with a power, an internal, disordered sun, that was an exquisite piece of theater. Lash picks up what McKerrow is laying down and the scenes between the two are the most compelling in the play. It’s astonishing that Lash was a late addition to the cast as it feels like she comes right home to the part – her Mag is a crone of highest order, a whining old bitch that still doesn’t deserve what her daughter has coming for her. Lash creates a roundness that I don’t often see, a completeness that makes me effortlessly think of the worst points of my own grandmother, sitting in her damned old chair, bossing me around. She, too, had hands that kind of curled in like claws. It felt like Catharini needed some time to settle into Ray, but I eventually found him consistent and he seemed quite the native to me. Page, though, stuck out. There’s trouble with the accent made worse by constant rushing. I was frustrated by the scenes between he and McKerrow, she takes it seriously to high effect and he just isn’t there. Set was great this time. Alan Zemla and Fuzz Roark are pros at making the tiny space at Spotlighters cozy, and this time it seemed just a little cold and clammy, too, despite the embroidered dishcloths with their cheery, brainlessly homespun idioms (I believe I spotted a picture of JFK on the wall, nice touch).
BOTTOM LINE: The Beauty Queen of Leenane really does have a queen and it’s Kat McKerrow. I don’t often recommend a show because of one performance, but I would for this one, if I had to. Luckily, I don’t, as the rest of the production has quite a lot to offer. If you’re in the mood for a pitch-black Irish comedy with a kick like a spooked horse and a killer of a strong lead, I think you’ll find this right up your alley.
Running at Spotlighters until March 15th
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