Harsh humor, toxic relationships propel Northlight's excellent 'Beauty Queen of Leenane'

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” - ★ ★ ★ ★

Two women locked in a toxic relationship battle each other in not so subtle ways in Northlight Theatre's exquisitely honed revival of Martin McDonagh's “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”

An early work by the writer/director of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “In Bruges” and the first in his Leenane trilogy, it illustrates in grim detail the damage family members can inflict on each other.

Dread and desperation underscore this blackly comic kitchen sink drama, which unfolds as a battle of wills between beleaguered 40-year-old Maureen Folan (a magnificent Kate Fry) and her septuagenarian mother Mag (shrewd, complex work by Wendy Robie) who share a cottage in a backwater burg in County Galway, Ireland.

Maureen (Kate Fry) shares a few fleeting romantic moments with Pato (Nathan Hosner) in Northlight Theatre's fine revival of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane." Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

For all of the county's considerable beauty, a pall hangs over this gray, rain-soaked community where loneliness and boredom breed resentment and anger. As Maureen's would-be lover Pato observes, “you can't kick a cow in Leenane without some (expletive) holding a grudge twenty year.”

That's certainly true of Mag and Maureen, discontent and dependent people whose passive aggression and caustic exchanges reflect long-held grievances.

Their bleak abode (tellingly designed by Todd Rosenthal), with its scuffed cabinets; peeling, water-stained wallpaper; and tatty linoleum reflects a ruined relationship.

If affection ever existed between them, it turned to animus years earlier. Now their relationship is rooted in mutual torment. For the last 15 years, the embittered Maureen has cared for the manipulative Mag, who sugarcoats her demands, then complains about how Maureen performs them.

Ray (Casey Morris) delivers an invitation to Mag (Wendy Robie) and her daughter in "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" running through April 22 at Northlight Theatre. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Two locals are inadvertently caught in their crossfire. Ray Dooley (funny, frustrated Casey Morris) is an impatient, casually insolent, unemployed 20-year-old who primarily serves as messenger for his older brother Pato (a compassionate Nathan Hosner). A fundamentally decent man who left the economically depressed Leenane to work construction in England, Pato has returned for a visit during which he and Maureen take tentative steps toward romance. For the virginal Maureen, Pato represents her best (and last) chance at happiness.

While Morris supplies the comic relief, Hosner supplies the heart. But in director BJ Jones' swift, unflinching production, Fry and Robie provide the fireworks.

Robie's subtle, expressive performance reveals Mag as a sly instigator more calculating than anyone realizes. Meanwhile, Fry's expertly calibrated performance reveals a woman more fragile than she appears. At the same time, Fry owns Maureen's cruelty. The result is a wonderfully subtle performance that is never less than compelling.

Kate Fry plays Maureen, a 40-year-old spinster caring for her ill-tempered mother in a Galway County, Ireland, backwater town, in Martin McDonagh's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" at Northlight Theatre. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

McDonagh's harsh humor and edgy, aggressive characters - who often find it difficult to check their violent impulses - aren't everyone's cup of tea. The tension is constant.

Ultimately, watching a play like “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” unfold is like waiting for the other shoe to drop. You may not relish what happens, but until it does, you're on the edge of your seat.

And in the theater, there's no better place to be.

<b>Location:</b> Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300 or

<b>Showtimes:</b> 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday through April 22. No 2:30 p.m. show April 1; no 1 p.m. show April 4; no 7 p.m. show April 8

<b>Tickets:</b> $30-$81

<b>Running time:</b> About two hours, including intermission

<b>Parking:</b> Free parking in the lot and garage adjacent to the theater

<b>Rating:</b> For adults; contains strong language, mature situations and violence

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.