Our love affair with McDonagh

(from top) Colleen McDonnell and Diana Rogers in Jobsite’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. (Photo: Brian Smallheer.)

In 2003 we staged our first play by London-bred Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. During that run, Straz Center then-CEO Judy Lisi made us an offer to become their resident theater company and take over programming of the Shimberg Playhouse. Now that our residency is old enough to drink, we’re returning to this pitch-black tale as part of our 25th anniversary season.

In between then and now we’ve produced other works by the Academy Award winning writer and director familiar to most through his films like The Banshees of Inisherin and In Bruges. The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Lonesome West, and A Skull in Connemara all followed Beauty Queen, delighting Tampa Bay area audiences while piling up awards. With the exception of Pillowman, these plays are all set in rural West Ireland, and are effectively part of a shared universe.

Brandon Mauro and Brian Shea in Jobsite's A Skull in Connemara. (Photo by Ryan Finzelber.)
Brandon Mauro and Brian Shea in Jobsite’s A Skull in Connemara. (Photo: Ryan Finzelber.)

Beauty Queen‘s Ray Dooley talks about his bestie Mairtin Hanlon, a character in A Skull in Connemara, while his brother Pato drops references about Girleen in Skull and the Coleman siblings from Lonesome West. In Skull, they refer to Pato Dooley’s wedding in Boston. Lonesome West finally shows us the character of Father Walsh (Welsh?), who hangs over all of these plays (with the same running joke) as the town’s drunk priest. And so on.

His plays are dark. And funny. Mix the two and it can become unsettling where some of these laughs come from — they are as hilarious as they are harrowing — yet local audiences have eaten every one of these plays up with glee. This is very likely why we glommed onto them as hard as we have. One might even dismiss his characters as being simply awful, brutal, and petty — but we think that is an approach devoid of nuance. 

The characters in his plays typically lack a broad concept of moral order, instead being ruled by their own individual codes. Codes that, for instance, make it ok to kill your father for insulting your hairstyle or justify a murder-and-mayhem spree because your cat went missing. Yet it is never that easy to write any of these people off, there’s often a lot of good found in these quirky souls even as they do very bad things and McDonagh’s writing is simply that good. 

Even he, however, seems unsure about his characters’ ultimate moralities: “I don’t know if people can be redeemed after the terrible things they do,” he said shortly after the Sundance opening of his film In Bruges, “but I enjoyed asking the question.” For my money anyway, these characters’ imperfections, outright flaws, and contradictions are what make them so utterly fascinating. And while maybe there are occasional moments where one one might cringe and think “dear god,” McDonagh always manages to keep things within the realm of actual possibility.

(L-R) Katrina Stevenson and Nicole Jeannine Smith in Jobsite's Dancing at Lughnasa. (Photo courtesy Pritchard Photography.)
(L-R) Katrina Stevenson and Nicole Jeannine Smith in Jobsite’s Dancing at Lughnasa. (Photo courtesy Pritchard Photography.)

Tampa Bay area audiences have been here for these stories over the years, and others set in the Irish west like Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. The plays remain some of our best-attended and critically-acclaimed over the years. The last we produced, A Skull in Connemara in 2017, earned Brian Shea a Creative Loafing Best of the Bay Award for Best Actor, and gave Diana Rogers and myself the Outstanding Featured Actress and Actor Awards from Theatre Tampa Bay. The show also won for Outstanding Lighting Design and Outstanding Set Design.

We’re incredibly excited to make a return to County Galway. From the New York Times, “Originally produced at the Druid in early 1996, “Beauty Queen” electrified Irish audiences and subsequently jumped to the West End. It was the first of what would come to be the Leenane Trilogy, including “The Lonesome West” and “A Skull in Connemara.” Bathed in cartoon violence (bludgeoning, stove exploding, etc.) and sadistic, gut-busting humor, each of those plays played in London on waves of adoration. Typical was Benedict Nightingale, of The London Times, who compared “Beauty Queen” to J.M. Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World,” and concluded, “Seldom have I ever seen the venom fizzing about the stage to better dramatic effect than in Martin McDonagh’s debut play.””

Did we mention he almost got into a fist-fight with Sean Connery at an awards show? Seems the human, like many of his creations, can find the ways to make you both dislike and sympathize with him. 🙂 His punk rock demeanor (particularly for the theater, let’s be honest) and love of bands like The Clash and The Pogues of course also endeared me to him instantly.

McDonagh’s work has been compared to a number of other Very Big Deal playwrights. Sam Shepard. William Synge. Harold Pinter. Joe Orton. But his plays are, to me, very much his even if it is clear to see inspiration here and there.

Now, of course, I think we’d be very lucky to see another play out of him — a shame really when you consider he was the first playwright since Shakespeare to have 4 plays on the West End at once. He’s become quite the big deal film-maker, with The Banshees of Insherin getting a total of 9 Academy Award nominations. I wonder what it would have won (instead of being 0-9) had it been any other year where the competition wasn’t the exquisite Everything Everywhere All at Once. His first film, a short called Six Shooter, won him an Oscar right out of the gate.

Of course, I know film was always his grand plan. He borrowed his brother’s books on writing when he had it in his head he could write screenplays, he just figured it would be easier to start with a play. This is why I do not trust his line that he didn’t allow Banshees to be staged because he thought it “wasn’t very good” — my money is that he intentionally held onto this one for the big screen. To be fair I feel like every play he wrote had at least one effect in it that he had to have seen cinematically first because, damn, if they are not difficult to pull off on stage.

But there’s been some of the most fun we’ve had: sorting out how to give both barrels of a shotgun to a stove on stage and have it blow up, how to fabricate then destroy dozens of realistic-looking skulls on stage every night, how to dismember two bodies on stage nightly and then clean the resultant gallons of blood up in time for the next show, and so on. “The big effect” in Beauty Queen may not be quite that over-the-top, but it is nonetheless impactful. But, spoilers …

If you don’t know the story: The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the darkly comic tale of Maureen Folan, a woman who feels like anything but a beauty queen. After a lifetime spent caring for her bullying tyrant of a mother, 40-year-old Maureen feels that she has been robbed of any chance of romance or a life of her own. However, she is far from a self-pitying spinster. Every bit as ruthless as her mother, Maureen gets a wicked thrill out of serving her mother lumpy Complan and cold porridge. As the play develops, the audience discovers that’s the least of the ill-deeds.

When true love finally does come along for Maureen, the two women lock horns until scores are settled. With plot twists and story conundrums, The Beauty Queen of Leenane will have audiences laughing aloud one moment and covering their mouths in stunned silence the next.

We open March 15, and I hope to see you before we close on April 7!

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