Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Northlight Theatre
Review by John Olson|

Kate Fry and Wendy Robie
Photo by Michael Brosilow
One can imagine that all eras throughout history have been difficult, many certainly more brutal and less humane than these early decades of the 21st century. It seems that arts and entertainment have in the past dealt with the pain and uncertainties of life by avoiding them. In the past decades, dramatic entertainment frequently presented the world either through sentimental eyes looking only at the best of humanity or by avoided unpleasantness altogether through light entertainment. Say what you will about our times, I think most will agree our arts and entertainment are not sentimental. Even the frothiest of our light entertainments like teen-oriented action flicks deal with dystopian future societies or Armageddon.

Thus, Britain's writer-director Martin McDonagh, with his darkly comic view of human nature, has at the age of 48 become a major voice of our times. With the wide theatrical release of his feature film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and its major Academy Award nominations and wins for actors Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, he can be said to have made it into the mainstream. As much success as he's had with his eight produced stage plays in London, New York and elsewhere, his work in live theater is, sadly, not mainstream.

Chicago theatergoers have had strong productions of McDonagh's work, though, including a Pillowman at Steppenwolf that starred Tracy Letts and Michael Shannon. A storefront production of Pillowman by Redtwist Theatre earned raves as well, and Chicagoans have enjoyed storefront productions of The Lonesome West, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and A Behanding in Spokane. Among the area's Equity theaters, McDonagh has enjoyed a special home at Northlight Theatre, where Artistic Director B.J. Jones has, with this production of Leenane, directed four McDonagh titles (including Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and A Skull in Connemara.

While this is my first Leenane, it's hard to picture a better production. Jones's cast stars one of the "first ladies" of Chicago theatre, Kate Fry, as Maureen Folan, the 40-year-old spinster caring for her invalid mother Mag in Ireland's rural west. Supported by the costume designs of Theresa Ham and spot-on wig design by Sam Umstead, Fry shows us a red-haired Maureen who has been beaten down by isolation, loneliness and tedium, yet still retains enough spark and attractiveness (with effort) to interest the single man, Pato, who returns home from London for a visit. She's brutally impatient (and later just brutal) to her 70-year-old mother, who is not as infirm or helpless as she claims to be. Fry shows the desperation of her character beneath her crusty rural surface—a woman struggling to hang on even to her sanity in the face of a seemingly hopeless future. When Pato (an exceptionally vulnerable and sympathetic Nathan Hosner) shows interest, Fry's Maureen reveals fires rekindled in a way that makes the stakes palpably high as we see Mag's efforts to thwart Maureen's presumably last chance at love (and escape from the caregiving responsibilities for Mag).

Mag is played by Wendy Robie, the Stratford Festival company member known to fans of TV's "Twin Peaks" as the eccentric, one-eyed Nadine Hurley. Spending most of her considerable stage time in a rocking chair, Robie shows a Mag far cleverer than she wants to let on. She feigns helplessness to get Maureen to wait on her and maintains an air of innocence to attempt to disguise her manipulations. But despite this duplicity, Robie shows Mag's will to live and her fear of losing Maureen's care, and she has enough humanity to be more than a comic foil.

The marvelously layered performances by Fry, Robie and Hosner in this four-person cast are complemented by the sharp comic acting of Casey Morris as Pato's dim teenaged brother Ray. Morris's Ray has a tense, pent-up energy of a small-town kid needing to do something, but not knowing what. He's clueless even as he believes himself to be the smartest one in the room.

Todd Rosenthal's hyper-realistic setting of the Folan cottage and the musical score by Andre Pluess effectively take the audience into rural western Ireland. J.R. Lederle's lighting design subtly communicates various times of day while helping to set the moods of this alternately hopeful and dark piece. David Wooley's convincing violence design adds much to the realism of the production.

As McDonagh's first produced play, it doesn't show quite the unpredictable outrageousness of his later work, but it's an indicator of the voice he would develop further over the next twenty years. Though set in a rural, almost primitive and isolated region, and with enough detail to make the setting very specific, the fears of loneliness and the search for fulfillment in life he depicts are universal and palpable. He uncompromisingly shows the human potential for cruelty, but with a wit that makes his bleak outlook tolerable enough to ponder rather than avoid.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, through April 22, 2018, at Northlight Theatre, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., Skokie IL. For information and ticketing visit

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