Director Christopher Johnson

What would life be like in a European land untouched by the glories of Roman civilisation? One only has to visit Ireland to find out, a place where even the premeditated murder of a member of the British Royal Family, who was also a great war hero, is well within bounds.

The Rogue Theatre in Tucson is currently producing a 1996 Martin McDonagh play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which is greatly enhanced by the live music played at intervals by violinist Janine Peik and cellist Robert Marshall. It is quite a celebrated play, having won 4 Tony Awards for its 1998 run on Broadway.

This is, as a Los Angeles Times review admitted, a “traditional Irish family drama.” Those unfamiliar with what that means will be in for a shock; anyone who is overly sensitive to a full serving of psychological and physical trauma best stay home and read a light-hearted book such an Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. For that is the very book read during this play by Maureen, a sexually repressed 40-year-old woman trapped in a symbiotic relationship with her aging Mother. The book signals the blood-sucking dynamic between the two, played to the hilt in a bravura performance by Holly Griffith as Maureen and Dr. Cynthia Meier as the Mother. Frequent visitors to the theatre will recognise Meier as the co-founder of the Rogue, one of Tucson’s best places to see fine theatre with a bite (pun intended).

Director Christopher Johnson described rehearsal conversation with the actors to get the most out of the ‘fragile realism’ of McDonagh’s play. “All of the heartbreak for Maureen seems to be coming from an obsession with manifesting what she hopes really happened or would happen: this obsession with staying, and in this obsession with going. That’s sort of where her madness does lie, and we talked a lot about the different things that could have happened but obviously wherever she goes it’s in her head ultimately. So that for me was the obsession.”

“By holding each other emotionally hostage in a vicious co-dependence,” as Johnson describes it, this play pulls out all the stops with a series of melodramatic tropes ranging from a simple letter in a sealed envelope to a pan of burning oil on the stove. The dynamic of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the 1962 film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? comes to mind, as does the madness of Lady Macbeth. When Maureen dreams of her Mother, it is “dressed in white in your coffin, with a fellow beside me comforting me at your wake.” Charming!

Watching Maureen’s psychic break when she comes face-to-face with her romantic relationship with Pato Dooley (played with sensitivity by Ryan Parker Knox) is a moment in theatre not to be forgotten. And the role of his brother Ray Dooley (Hunter Hnat, who gives us a master class in acting on how to carry a grudge forever) rounds out this cast of four fine actors.

From the evocative set by Joseph McGrath of a dirty Irish cottage (more elaborate than the usual minimalistic set at the Rogue) to the priceless facial expressions Meier gives us, this is a play to be relished.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane plays at the Rogue through Mar 15, 2020

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Photo by C. Cunningham: General Manager of The Rogue Theatre, and director of this play, Christopher Johnson

Director Christopher Johnson