Les Misérables

I hate you: Claudia Wilkens scowls through The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Three generations of women stand on a three-sectioned stage at the Park Square Theatre, obsessively spelling out their familial dysfunction. Through these characters, playwright Lee Blessing aspires to turn logodaedaly ("playing with language," as the theater's playbill handily points out) into drama. Yet Blessing's Eleemosynary, remounted by Park Square 15 years after they originally commissioned the script, does not really offer a plot, as such. Instead, the playwright has his characters tell stories from their unhappy lives in a winding, fragmented narrative.

Grandmother Dorothea (Linda Kelsey), mother Artie (Mary Frances Miller), and daughter Echo (Cassie Fox) spend the evening turning to the audience and to one another, bleating stories of their damaged lives. "I think a woman has a right to be irrational about her children," Artie declares from the first platform, recounting the way she abandoned her daughter. "I was just a very intelligent, vicious person," Echo confesses from the second platform, describing her gloating, savage performance at a national spelling-bee championship. Meanwhile, from the third platform, Dorothea reveals her heartlessness by giving a remedial lecture about the value of abortion. "You won't be you anymore," she says, bullying the pregnant Artie. "You'll just be something a child needs."

The cast quietly take turns yielding the bare stage, trying their best to fill it with Blessing's language. Kelsey plays her role with a loopy, put-upon quality. She gets most of the sharpest comic dialogue, and when she declares, "Eccentricity changed my life," the statement--and the character's eccentricity--are in little doubt. Director Wendy Lehr stages the play like a musical, with every scene leading up to a showstopping number; in this case long stretches of emotional turmoil replace song-and-dance numbers.

This quickly grows exhausting. Blessing explores every trauma in the life of young Echo and then explains the origins of her pain by whittling away at her mother's life. The play briefly threatens to become a strange sort of documentary, tracing emotional wounds all the way back to their origins, presumably in the Pliocene era. Fortunately, Blessing ends this lineage of suffering with Dorothea, satisfied to characterize her as a batty old bird whose one fatal flaw is her desire to "be extraordinary."

The three women on the stage crow continuously about their genius in a logorrhea of polysyllabic obscurity--words such as euphrasy and bijouterie. It is a gimmicky genius they offer, a stage trick produced with a dictionary rather than mirrors or flash powder. When Echo declares her life to be to be "ugsome," the word is a prop rather than an expression of character.

Blessing's real concern is not with genius, but with his characters' emotional disorders, and the play exists to move them toward health. There is something touching about a playwright who will invent unhappy characters and then spend an hour and a half trying to make them happy again, but this act of authorial charity (ironically, the meaning of the word eleemosynary) doesn't make for satisfying drama.



Language is also a prop--in this instance, a weapon--in Martin McDonagh's play The Beauty Queen of Leenane, receiving its local debut in the hands of Eye of the Storm. McDonagh gives his characters language to batter one another, the sharp edges of their fractured sentences acting as wounding, blunt instruments. His characters speak in a jumbled regional Irish dialect that confounds sentence structure. Discussing a serial killer, an old woman tells her daughter: "Killing you I bet he first would." Parse that.

The play tells of a hideous mother (a scowling Claudia Wilkens) and her sharp-tongued daughter (a dowdy, despairing Nancy Griggs Morgan), who despise each other and engage in little acts of sabotage. The mother pours her infected urine into the kitchen sink, and the daughter retaliates by feeding mom stale Chocolate Kimberley biscuits. These gestures begin as comedy, but with the introduction of a suitor (J.C. Cutler), the story takes a turn toward violence.

McDonagh's Tony Award-winning script moves deftly from dark comedy to Grand Guignol luridness, although it has the feel of a particularly well-written episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. While a Hitchcock writer like Joseph Stefano (who also scripted Psycho) may not have matched McDonagh's extensive use of the word feckin', he wrote about the same sort of psychic territory, in which long-buried secrets and hidden psychosis conspire toward brutal, shocking endings. What McDonagh has written here is a classic thriller, even including a long (and, under the direction of Casey Stangl, exquisitely tormenting) scene revolving around a purloined letter. Take that, Poe.

McDonagh has been criticized for the obvious delight he takes in cruelty, but diabolical characters are an actor's best friend, and the cast of Beauty Queen indulges in this diabolism. Claudia Wilkens gives her aged, decrepit woman a hideous intelligence. She speaks slowly and she deliberately misunderstands everything said to her; her every sideways glance reveals another malicious intention. Wilkens and Morgan bring to their mother/daughter characters a trapped loathing, and it is thrilling to watch their bile spill over into the physical.

Physicality is, in fact, Beauty Queen's most impressive feature. McDonagh's characters inhabit an oppressively sensual world, full of smells that sting their noses and touches that damage their bodies. They describe these onslaughts in vivid, fragmented sentences, making them authentic for the audience. Midway through the play a character rejects a cup of tea, explaining that "the talk of your mother's wee put me off it." The line draws sympathetic laughter from the audience, who have spent much of the play mortified by the mother's rotten piss. These horrific details build until the nasty turns choke off the audience's sympathetic laughter.

Eye of the Storm winds through these, well, ugsome plot twists on a tilted, ramshackle set with a skewed gusto, and they make it an infectious (or is that infected?) pleasure. We may despise ourselves later for the joy we take in such cruelty, but while it's on the stage, we thrill in it.

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