In her magnum opus, “The Women of Will,” Tina Packer brings to life Shakespeare’s greatest female characters, from Juliet to Cleopatra to Lady Macbeth. But Packer finds her latest role, as monstrous mother Mag Folan in Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” to be a different kind of challenge.
Starting, she says, with Mag’s limited vocabulary.
“In Shakespeare you can do violent acts, but the poetry will sustain you, it lifts you up,” Packer said. “You’re OK, you can feel a soul through the poetry which is bigger than the violence itself. Even if you’re doing ‘Macbeth,’ for instance, and you’re doing these terrible, terrible things, there’s still some way the actor — not the character — can go through these things and not ultimately be corrupted by them.
“I don’t think that’s true with McDonagh. I’m having a real struggle, because the language is limited, it’s very violent and there’s nowhere to go,” she said. “In Shakespeare there’s always a psychological depth to your character, he always gives you clues as to why your character does the things that he or she does. But here there’s no clues as to why they do what they do, other than poverty and leading insular lives. So it’s very hard to find, as an actor, what’s redemptive about it.”
Packer is founding artistic director at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, where “Leenane” begins performances Thursday. Longtime company member Elizabeth Aspenlieder plays Mag’s middle-age, never-married daughter Maureen. The Folan women share a cottage in the west of Ireland, and the play documents the toxic consequences of their claustrophobic relationship.
In Aspenlieder’s account, Packer is enjoying the 1996 play a little more than she makes it sound.
“When she agreed to do it, she was kicking and screaming, but now she’s loving it,” Aspenlieder said. “You should see her in rehearsal. She is savoring all the brutality of it. In between all the harshness, we have to laugh, or else we’d slit our wrists, it’s so brutal and horrific the way we treat each other.”
‘If we didn’t have a lot of friendship and trust it would be much more difficult.’
Packer founded the company 36 years ago. Aspenlieder is in her 18th season there as actor, and she is also an artistic associate and director of communications.
“We have a relationship almost like a mother and daughter,” Aspenlieder said. “It’s teacher and mentor, sister and sister, girlfriend and girlfriend, but really mother and daughter. I’ve talked to Tina about situations in my life that I’ve never shared with anyone else, and she has talked to me about situations she has never shared. We really have that foundation of family, and it’s not always easy.”
Another company member originally suggested that Aspenlieder read McDonagh, and she fell for “Leenane.” “As soon as I read it, I could see Tina and I,” she said. They did a reading last summer as part of Shakespeare & Company’s Studio Series and got a strong audience reaction. It was an easy choice when the company started planning the 2013 season last fall.
“Elizabeth and Tina know each other so well, through thick and thin,” said director Matthew Penn. “They’re such marvelous colleagues both onstage and in the running of the theater, but there’s no way you can know somebody that long and not develop a history that is complicated and wonderful.
“There was a lot [between them] as two people that stepped into the room the first day, so you weren’t having to work to fabricate that,” he said. Penn, son of the late, great film director Arthur Penn, is a veteran TV director (“Law & Order”) and co-artistic director of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab. The play becomes increasingly brutal — emotionally and, eventually, physically — for the two characters and the actresses who play them. (Shakespeare & Co. newcomers Edmund Donovan and David Sedgwick play the two other roles.)
“I find myself really quite dark when I come out of rehearsal, because the character I’m playing, all of her survival depends on keeping her daughter trapped to look after her,” Packer said. “I’m trying to control her the whole time! She can’t do a thing without me trying to second-guess [and] control her. And then she does terrible things to me.”
Is she, ahem, at all concerned that Aspenlieder choose “Leenane” for their first onstage meeting? It’s a jokey question, and Packer knows it.
“If anything I would say our friendship holds us in good stead out there,” she said. “If we didn’t have a lot of friendship and trust it would be much more difficult. But since we do have as long a background as these two characters in the play, practically — well, maybe not quite that long, but we do have a lot of history together — that holds us steady as we go into these darker areas.”
Still, Packer said she’s not quite sure how she feels about the play: “It’s very honest and it’s very funny, but I don’t know that you come out of there feeling, ‘My God, there’s hope for the human race.’ I’m not so keen on that. I like feeling as though there’s a way we can find through this.”
She laughed. “But that sounds like I’m encouraging nobody to come, doesn’t it?”
The young Circuit Theatre Company gets ambitious this month with Nathan Allen’s The Valentine Trilogy in the Roberts Studio Theatre of the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. With a cast of 20, including a live rock band, “San Valentino and the Melancholy Kid,” “Curse of the Crying Heart,” and “Valentine Victorious!” take the same unlikely hero, known as Valentine and played by Ryan Vona, through a western, a samurai film, and a superhero noir set in a Gotham City-like 1930s Boston. (The playwright worked with them on revising the trilogy, including moving the last play from Chicago to Boston with local references.) Skylar Fox directs.
All three plays are being presented each weekend from Aug. 2-17. On Aug. 4, 11, and 17, the entire trilogy will be presented as a seven-hour marathon, with meal breaks. Full-price tickets to any one play are $18 at 617-933-8600 or www.circuittheatre.com.