The Irish troubles begin at home in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.” War, famine and politics pale beside the bitter hostilities between mother and daughter in Martin McDonagh’s 1996 drama, now receiving a riveting revival at the Marin Theatre Company.
Staged with depth and insight by director Mark Jackson, the play doesn’t arrive with quite the same force as it did in its scathing local premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1999.
But Jackson ratchets up the tension throughout its two hours, blending McDonagh’s caustic humor, erotic yearning and Gothic horror to spellbinding effect.
It’s a splendid reminder of McDonagh’s status as one of the most assured theater artists of his generation. The Irish playwright has since gone on to write “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “A Behanding in Spokane,” and films including “In Bruges.” But “Beauty Queen” remains a brilliant creation – an intricately structured psychological thriller wrapped in a domestic drama.
Sharing a tiny cottage in western Ireland – the entire play takes place on Nina Ball’s sparse, grimy set, bathed in moody tones by York Kennedy – the relationship of Mag (the invaluable Joy Carlin) and Maureen (a vibrant Beth Wilmurt) has been corroding for 20 years.
That’s how long 40-year-old Maureen has been caring for her aged mother, and Wilmurt makes Maureen’s resentment apparent in every scene.
Mag maintains control from a spot in a rocking chair in front of the telly, wheedling, nagging and cajoling her daughter. The play hinges on how far she’s willing to go to keep Maureen in line.
It’s a tenuous balance, one that tips with the arrival of Pato (Rod Gnapp), a local man who’s been working in London. When he and Maureen connect at a party, repressed sexuality flares up like a hot flame. So do Mag’s defenses.
Jackson keeps the action simmering with well-timed exchanges and potent silences, as the humor of the first act yields to madness and murderous rage.
Wilmurt gives a tightly coiled performance as Maureen, and Carlin is mesmerizing as the crafty Mag. Gnapp makes the reading of his letter to Maureen an affecting soliloquy. As Ray, Pato’s blunt brother, Joseph Salazar helps turn the plot.
When it arrives, the sad coda of “Beauty Queen” may seem a foregone conclusion. But that doesn’t lessen its impact. The troubles of McDonagh’s Ireland seem destined to replicate themselves long after the final curtain.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
- Where: Marin Theatre Co., 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley
- When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7:30 p.m Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes June 16
- Tickets: $36 to $57
- Contact: (415) 388-5208, www.marintheatre.org