When Martin McDonagh’s play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, first emerged in 1996, the 23-year-old playwright was quickly caught up in a storm of controversy.
“There were a lot of Irish who thought this was just the most offensive, stereotypical thing to come across the border since the original English invasion,” explains Clinton Walker, who is directing the Guild Theatre production of the play that opens this week.
McDonagh was born in England of Irish parents. He spent his summer holidays in the western-Irish county of Galway, the setting for his first three plays, beginning with The Beauty Queen.
Despite the controversy – perhaps, in part, because of it – the play has enjoyed ongoing success.
“I think the magic about this play, as brutal and shocking as the subject matter is, is that it’s extremely accessible,” says Walker.
“There’s nothing high-falutin’ about it, nothing pretentious. It’s very accessible in a way that I think people who don’t go to the theatre very often would find themselves drawn to it.
McDonagh’s darkly comic play centres on the tempestuous relationship between 70-year Mag Folan (played by Mary Sloan) and her 40-year-old virgin daughter, Maureen (Moira Sauer).
Mag, says Walker, is a “cantankerous, manipulative, angry woman who’s dead set on making her daughter’s life a misery, insisting upon her daughter serving her until she moves on from this world.”
Maureen, for her part, has a somewhat shady past, with hints of time in a psychiatric facility for bouts of uncontrollable rage. Enter Pato Dooley (Anthony Trombetta), a local man who has recently returned to Leenane after an extended period in England working in construction.
Pato and Maureen are equally lost, Walker explains. Finding one another offers them both an opportunity to change their lives.
“The mother gets wind of this and starts a chain of events that brings tragedy to all the characters involved.”
The fourth character in what Walker calls a romanticized, but not romantic, story is Pato’s younger brother, Ray (played by 16-year-old Kieran Poile), who acts as “a rather troubled comrade of the older woman, Mag”.
Despite the play’s unblinking subject matter, Walker stresses that it’s also richly comic.
“This play has failed terribly in the past when the directors have not mined the play for its comedy,” he says.
This is Walker’s second visit to Whitehorse. In January, he directed the Guild’s highly-successful Laramie Project, where he also worked with Sloan.
A long-time actor who is relatively new to directing – this is his sixth production – Walker says his first advice to the actors was to act as if the audience were reading a page from their characters’ diaries.
“I want them to come into the play; I want them to pull back the curtain and take a look at what their neighbours are doing, what their co-workers are doing,” he says.
“There is something very scandalous about that that I find really charming and lovely. I love the scandal of spying on your neighbours. To me, really great theatre is about that.”
Opening night for a peek through the Folan kitchen window is Thursday, November 25 at 8:00 pm. The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs Thursday through Saturday until December 11.