Concordia pulls off a fierce, darkly funny Irish play

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By Doug Deuchler

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If you've never seen a production by the Artists of Concordia Theatre, they currently have an impressive show playing at Madison Street Theater. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is explosive and darkly funny. 

Director Jayme McGhan, the new artistic director of the theater program at Concordia University, elicits powerful performances from his young actors in this demanding play about damaged people in an abusive, seriously dysfunctional relationship. He maintains dramatic tension while focusing on his characters' deep-seated family hatred. The college junior and senior actresses playing the two key roles of a 70-year-old mother and her 40-year-old daughter are both exceptional.

The 1996 play is a dark comedy by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. It's a harrowing tale of two tragic, confused lives. From the get-go we witness a vicious, non-stop war of wills between two equally fierce women. This work is not for the faint of heart. It contains profanity and violence.

Kaycee Jordan is super as Maureen Folan, the title character, a bitter, middle-aged virgin who is a full-time caregiver for her selfish, ungrateful old mother. Maureen's unseen sisters are married and seem to be long out of the picture. But she's no washed-out frump. She's trapped, yes, but she still has hope of eventual freedom and romance. 

Maureen's been bossed and bullied for 20 years by her spiteful, lying mother. Jordan is strong in the daughter role, conveying both her girlish hope as well as her beaten-down bitterness and cynicism. She has few options for happiness or fulfillment, yet she yearns for a time when she'll be free of the devious, demanding old lady. Maureen's hopes and dreams become ours. 

Her sneaky mother-from-hell is played by Hannah Taylor. She shows no concern that her daughter is love-starved and lonely. She fears abandonment and will stop at nothing to keep her daughter to herself. Taylor, a good five decades younger than this monstrously manipulative character, is effective but at times her performance borders on cartoon exaggeration.

We are constantly reminded the conniving old woman suffers from a "urine infection." She also has a disgusting morning habit of dumping the contents of her potty down the kitchen sink. 

Maureen, we learn, has had some past episode of mental illness. Is she still unstable?

Is the old woman's mutilated red hand the result of an accidental injury or something more sinister? 

Our sympathies keep shifting back and forth as we witness the ongoing battle. Maureen can also be tyrannical. Theirs is a co-dependent sado-masochistic relationship that is essentially nonstop warfare. There is no charm or warmth between them, never any gaiety or compassion.

Joshua Bomba plays hesitant, lonely Pato Dooley, an awkwardly earnest suitor, now a construction worker living in England. He does a terrific job with a monologue lit by spotlight on a dark stage in which he shares the contents of a sweet letter he's written to Maureen.

But the meddlesome old woman steps in and tries to subvert the growing relationship between Maureen and Pato. 

Micah Streubel's set design is perfect: bleak and dreary. The sparsely furnished kitchen, located in rural western Ireland, heightens the feeling of entrapment. There is a realistic flickering fire in the wood-burning stove as well as a special effect of rain falling outside the isolated cottage.

Geordie Denholm is a scene stealer, providing comic relief as Pato's edgy, bored-out-of-his-skull younger brother, who retreats into Australian soap operas on the "telly." Ireland seems to offer nothing to these frustrated, restless characters.

The thick Irish dialect is done well by all four actors under the direction of Jason Fleece, the dialect coach. In the initial scenes, it's rather difficult to grasp everything due to the brisk pace of the conversation. But your ear quickly grows accustomed to the sound and rhythm of it. The actors maintain their accents throughout the two-act drama.

The story is set in the 1990s, but it feels far more retro — like the '50s or before. Folks raise chickens and seem so isolated and impoverished. There is so little chance for advancement that many leave, escaping to England or the United States to find more opportunity.

Kara Grimm's lighting makes some scenes feel too glaringly bright for such a murky tale.

Ryan Kenney is the stage manager.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane opened first in Ireland, then England, before playing in New York City. The Broadway production won four Tony Awards out of six nominations. 

We're lucky to have this spellbinding Irish play mounted in our midst. Its blend of dark comedy, horror, and melodrama is successfully blended by a small but stunning cast. The director's sharp instincts maximize surprising developments in a plot full of betrayals and deceptions.

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Carl Streubel from Litchfield  

Posted: October 7th, 2014 6:49 PM

I agree with this article except I thought Hannah ' s portrayal as the mother was outstanding. I saw the play both Friday and Saturday. And obviously I loved the set, but my opinion could be biased as it was my daughter's design. I was quite impressed with this production and can't wait for the next show!

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