LENOX — Home is where the hate is in Shakespeare & Company’s production of Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,’’ a pitiless vision of domestic imprisonment.
The domicile in question is a threadbare cottage in Leenane, a village in County Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. It’s occupied by a scrofulous, manipulative old woman named Mag Folan, played by Tina Packer as a kind of living gargoyle, and her embittered, 40-year-old daughter Maureen, portrayed with seething force by Elizabeth Aspenlieder.
For two decades, Maureen has been Mag’s caretaker, and the mother is determined to keep it that way, even though terrible things have been happening under their roof. Then romance flares between Maureen and a good-natured bloke named Pato Dooley (David Sedgwick), suggesting the possibility of escape from her stifling existence.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
“The Beauty Queen of Leenane’’ premiered in 1996, when McDonagh was in his mid-20s, heralding the arrival of a singular talent and showcasing the unsparing view of human cruelty and mordant humor that would become the playwright’s trademarks.
Director Matthew Penn creates a time-standing-still atmosphere that adds to the sense of emotional claustrophobia in “Leenane.’’ The oppressive aura within the Folan household reflects the wider, subtler social constraints that often pervade small communities, where everybody knows everybody, old identities are hard to shed, little is hidden, and nothing is forgotten. “You can’t kick a cow in Leenane without some bastard holding a grudge twenty year,’’ observes Pato. (It’s a theme that also ran through McDonagh’s dark comedy “The Cripple of Inishmaan,’’ which also premiered in 1996.)
Indeed, Maureen’s fate is partly determined by lingering hard feelings over a tiny, long-ago incident: her refusal to return an errant tennis ball to young Ray Dooley, Pato’s kid brother. When Mag learns a key detail about Maureen’s night with Pato, she can’t resist taunting her daughter, even though revealing that she knows the secret is not in the mother’s best interests, to put it very, very mildly.
The Folan home, designed by Patrick Brennan, seems to be barely holding itself together, like its inhabitants. On a cupboard shelf above a grubby sink sits a radio, and next to it is the one trace of glamour in this grim abode: a black-and-white photograph of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, forever youthful and full of promise. Mag stares often at a small television set mounted on a wooden box; the news seems to be her favorite program, which perhaps accounts for her amusing refrain: “I do have no comment, as they say.’’
On opening night of “Leenane,’’ there were a few moments when Packer and Aspenlieder seemed to still be finding their rhythm together. Overall, though, these two fine actresses combine to build a persuasively harrowing portrait of a familial duo who make the sisters in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’’ seem downright chummy.
With her face fixed in a permanent scowl, fiercely gripping the arms of her rocking chair, Packer’s Mag is a grotesque, near-feral combination of aggression and fear, obtuseness and guile. Mag generates pure negative energy, and she will use any weapon at her disposal to thwart Maureen’s chance at happiness.
But she’s also a creature of pathetic neediness, and in “Leenane’’ the malice runs both ways, taking startling — make that bloodcurdling — forms. Maureen is no passive victim in this poisonous relationship. Aspenlieder smartly underplays the daughter, as if to allow us to measure the depth of Maureen’s rage by the strength of the efforts she is making to suppress it — which intensifies the impact when it eventually erupts.
Yet the actress also captures the shreds of humanity Maureen has left, bringing poignancy to those moments when the daughter grasps at the fragments of a life, as in a yearning moment early in the play when she says: “Sometimes I dream . . . Of anything! Of anything. Other than this.’’
A hallmark of Sedgwick’s excellent performance as Pato is that he makes clear the fervor of the character’s own dreams of escape: from Leenane, yes, but also from the drudgery and humiliatingly low pay of working as a laborer on building sites in England. As Pato’s brother Ray, Edmund Donovan sketches an unerringly accurate picture of slacker soullessness. Ray clearly has a lofty opinion of himself, but you get the sense that ultimately he’s not going anywhere. In that, he’s not alone.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.