Updated: Aug 29
Finding the heartbeat in Martin McDonagh’s 1996 dark comedy
By Joel Beers
What the audience sees in Irish-playwright-turned-Hollywood-superstar Martin McDonagh’s breakthrough 1996 dark comedy “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It’s clear that the two main characters are mother and daughter and neither is happy with living in the same rundown home on a barren patch in the wild hinterlands of the Western Irish coast. Actually, not happy is an understatement. The two characters are combative and testy, if not downright vicious to one another; and there’s a palpable sense that the verbal hostility could turn horrifically violent at any turn.
But while clues and hints are given as to how the two have wound up spinning in erratic orbit around each other, McDonagh never explicitly lays out the trajectory.
But that doesn’t mean the path hasn’t been methodically mapped out by director Michael Serna and the cast he’s assembled for this Costa Mesa Playhouse production.
“One of the things I like about all his plays and films is that he gives just enough,” Serna says of McDonagh, who burst to fame in the mid-1990s with a trilogy of plays in which “Beauty Queen” was the first, before transitioning into films like “In Bruges,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and the 2023-Academy Award nominated “The Banshees of Irisherin.”
“His plays in particular are like really good short stories in that they’re a snippet, or a segment of life,” Serna says. “We know we’ve been dropped into the middle of something heated, but we don’t quite know how it got there. And that gives us the freedom as creative people to fill in the gaps.”
What filling in those gaps means in this production is that while the audience knows nothing about what has transpired in the world of this play before it starts, the actors are intimately familiar. And it’s their job to somehow relay that through their performances without consciously telling the audience.
That creates a formidable challenge for any actor but it’s one that Jordana Whitton, who plays the character of Maureen, the daughter in the play, relishes.
“For me this is an actor’s dream,” Whitton says. “The relationship between (the mother in the play) Mag and Maureen is not contained in the width of the play, it goes back 40 years, and the excitement for me as an actor is to craft a history of that relationship in which this all makes sense. It’s about finding ways to rationalize (Maureen’s) behavior and to fully ingest it and then put into (her portrayal).”
(Andrea G. La Vela plays Mag, and Mark Coyan and Cody Aaron Hanify round out the cast as Pato, Maureen’s erstwhile suitor, and his younger brother, Ray, whose messenger skills leave a little to be desired).
Creating her character’s back story is problematic, however, Whitton says, because unlike nearly every other role she’s portrayed, Maureen has no clear objectives at the play’s beginning.
“I have never encountered a character that at the beginning of the play has no objectives There is nothing that she wants.”
But in ruminating over that, Whitton said she found a key to unlocking Maureen.
“There’s nothing that she wants because she thinks there is nothing she can have. But then she sees a glimmer of something else and to sense that there may be something else other than this life that is so desperately constrained makes her hang onto that thread,” regardless of the cost, Whitton says.
But, again, the audience does not know from the script what is going on inside Maureen’s head. To convey that, Whitton likens her approach to Maureen as building a kind of scaffolding around her, something that ““if properly built means I am living in this three-dimensional world completely and the audience can sense that and trusts it enough to go along with it.”
If this all sounds like a lot of work is being done in rehearsal other than learning lines while not bumping into the furniture, you’re absolutely right. But that’s the difference between a fully realized production of this play, one that captures the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship, as well as each of the character’s inner story, rather than one that goes for a “cleaner” approach, in Serna’s words, that either focuses on the darker dimension or emphasizes the humor.
“I think for a play like this there needs to be a threat of violence, but some productions settle solely for that, while other just play up the comedy,” says Serna, who favors an approach that is more honest, albeit messier and rawer.
“I believe the world is messy, especially in the way that we often view each other as people, and the thing about McDonagh’s plays is he doesn’t shy away from that,” Serna says. “ Yes, these are unpleasant people, it is hard to argue that, but often it’s in those rough edges where we find the humanity and that’s also where the humor, however dark it might be, stems from. So the way to get there is taking the shackles off the actors so they can bare themselves raw and trust the audience will go along with it.”
Whitton agrees that playing the rawness of McDonagh’s words is the key to finding the heartbeat in a play that, at times, can seem very heartless.
“He doesn’t shy away from the really hard conversations, but in that
rawness he also finds a way to be beautifully honest,” she says. “And in those conversations, there’s always humanity.”
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist based in Orange County.. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
“The Beauty Queen of Leenane”
Costa Mesa Playhouse
661 Hamilton Street, Costa Mesa
August 25 - September 17, 2023
(949) 650-5269, www.costamesaplayhouse.com