Review: ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ rocks a great script, strong performances

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Dena Dunn, left, portrays Mag Folan. Kristi Lee Smith, right, plays her daughter Maureen Folan. (Photo by Christina Ulsh)

The Greater Lewisville Community Theatre’s performance of the darkly humorous “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” had the audience laughing from start to finish.

This black comedy, set in 1990’s Ireland, tells the story of Maureen Folan (Kristi Lee Smith), a 40-year-old spinster, who cares for her nagging hypochondriac mother Mag (Dena Dunn). Maureen and Mag hate each other, but have a codependent relationship. A life of taking care of her abusive mother has taken a toll on Maureen, and it appears unlikely that she will have a chance at happiness as long as her mother is still in need of care. When Ray Dooley (Tyler Cochran), another resident of the downtrodden Leenane, invites Maureen to his uncle’s going away party, she reconnects with Pato Dooley (Daniel Bierly). In Pato, Maureen sees a potential future she thought she might never have, but Mag will try her best to “feck” it up, as they say in the play countless times.

Martin McDonagh’s play uses exceptional wit to keep the audience laughing throughout the play, despite very dark themes and events. The first of his trilogy of plays set in Leenane became a major success, earning six nominations and four wins at the 1998 Tony Awards.

With only four actors, the acting chops of the ensemble was on full display. Cochran and Dunn delivered exceptional performances as Ray and Mag. The two scenes between twith heir characters were beautifully performed. The back-and-forth nature of McDonagh’s script came to life thanks to the marvelous stage chemistry that these two actors shared.

Cochran really has a knack for comedic timing. He manages to deliver a line that is one word repeated about a dozen times, and still managed to coax laughter out of the audience. It didn’t matter what the line was, Cochran delivered it well and kept the audience chuckling.

Dena Dunn as Mag Folan and Tyler Cochran as Ray Dooley have remarkable chemistry on set in Martin McDonagh’s "The Beauty Queen of Leenane." (Photo by Christina Ulsh)
Dena Dunn as Mag Folan and Tyler Cochran as Ray Dooley have remarkable chemistry on set in Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.” (Photo by Christina Ulsh)

Dunn in particular was the highlight of the show. Mag is one of the those characters who is so easy to hate, but due to Dunn’s performance you couldn’t help but like her at least a little. The beauty of Dunn’s work falls in more than just the delivery of the lines, her physical acting was spectacular. She really transformed into the decrepit Mag. Dunn played both the dramatic and the comedic moments phenomenally. One particular scene where Mag was being especially nasty about Maureen’s mental health landed with the audience thank in no small part due to Dunn’s performance. Her acting alone is worth the price of admission, which is $18 to $20.

While the on stage chemistry between Dunn and Cochran shined, the pivotal relationship between Pato and Maureen left something to be desired.It never really felt like the two characters were in love with each other. Bierly and Smith should have left the audience rooting for their characters to wind up together but it never really felt like it mattered.

Part of the blame for that belongs with Smith, whose acting was wonderful aside from the scenes with Bierly. Smith’s acting in the scenes with Dunn were terrific. She did a perfect job of playing up the disdain that Maureen felt for her mother. The scenes with Bierly brought her performance down, as there was little to no chemistry. This led to Maureen never really becoming a character that you rooted for. You certainly felt bad for her, having to take care of Mag and all of her nastiness, but it fell short of empathy. Smith’s performance was enjoyable in the first act, but stellar in the second act, where she was on par performance wise with Dunn. Smith portrayal of Maureen slipping into mania was exceptional. Her transformation into the person she once hated had me literally on the edge of my seat.

Bierly’s performance as Pato was probably the biggest reason for the failing of the two actors’ on-set chemistry. He delivered the comedic moments of the piece nicely, but much of the dramatic moments fell to him and Smith, and he didn’t hit the mark. Too often he portrayed Pato as light and funny, when for the scene to really resonate and have the audience appreciate the couple, real emotion would have served the show better.

In addition to portraying Pato, Bierly pulled double duty as the set designer. His set was cluttered but in a way that worked. It had the feel of a lived-in home and was spaced exceptionally. He managed to effectively build three sets in one to help break up the stage. This was great because the entire play takes place in a small home. The furnace on stage right was distinctive from the table at center stage and the sink area at stage left. These three areas worked superbly within the larger set.

The costume and makeup designers did a particularly good job as well. They made the whole show feel exceptionally like more than just actors performing a show. The burned hand of Mag was done perfectly, and looked just like she had actually burned herself.

Director Kenny Green made good use of the space on the stage. There were moments when it felt like too much of the action was taking place stage right, but that would have been hard to get around due to Mag’s rocking chair being located in that area, and her spending so much of her on stage time in that chair. He did a nice job of having characters around her move to other areas of the set and avoid the furnace area when Mag wasn’t in the scene. Overall the play was delightful. The script material plus strong performance from Dunn and Cochran in particular make “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” worth going to see.

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” runs until Feb. 19. Friday and Saturday shows will be at 8 p.m. and Sunday shows will be at 3 p.m. Tickets can be purchased by mail, phone, at the box office or online from the Greater Lewisville Community Theatre.