Marie Mullen as Mag Folan & Aisling O’Sullivan as Maureen Folan

Here’s an Irish double feature beginning with THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE now on the ArtsEmerson Paramount Mainstage. I had never before seen this Tony Award-winning dark Irish tragi-comedy, the first of a trilogy by Martin McDonough. First performed by Ireland’s Druid Theatre Company in Galway in 1996, it went on to win 4 Tony’s in 1998 and has been revived, faithfully directed by Druid co-founder and artistic director Garry Hynes, with some of its superb cast re-arranged. Get ready for an emotional and psychological wallop.

Set in Leenane, a poor Irish village in Connemara, the play happens in one room of a cottage as filthy as the weather. There mother “Mag” Folan a bitter old woman, and spinster daughter “Maureen” are locked in mortal combat.  Mag is played by Marie Mullen who played the daughter in the original, so this production comes trailing a history which echoes the play’s dark themes of stasis and insularity. Indeed, Mullen looks like she’s grafted onto the rocker in which we first see her, feigning frailty beneath her litany of complaint, and sharpening a mean streak. Marie Mullen is soaked in the rancidness of this character; we can practically smell the urine coming off her as she dumps her piss pot into the kitchen sink every morning, one of many tactics designed to torture her caretaker daughter.

Aisling O’Sullivan plays Maureen as a tall and brittle, surly blond who seems feisty enough to manage. Indeed, her mother’s scalded hand is an indicator of her physical abuse of Mag over the years. When Maureen meets an old acquaintance Pato Dooley (Marty Rea) a man who remembers Maureen as the “beauty queen” of the title and presents an opportunity for a new life, the play and the claustrophobic mother/daughter relationship heaves.

Marty Rea as Pato Dooley/Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Rea’s second act opening monologue is a stunner and a testament to the playwright’s ear for dialogue and dialect. It took me a bit to get used to, but now I can barely resist inserting the word “feckin” into every sentence– like one of the “Leenanean” locals named Ray Dooley played to perfection by Aaron Monaghan; as the crudely funny comic relief, he is instrumental in a classic turn of plot involving a letter on whose delivery all hangs…!

The surface of the play is exceptionally detailed and observed, from the gritty pots and pans, to the portrait of the flaming sacred heart above the stove in this Catholic kitchen. What drives these characters is less obvious, but even more potent. Intimations of Maureen’s troubled youth bubble to the surface. A breakdown. An asylum. Who’s to blame? What really happened? And what’s it got to do with now? The final scene completely upended me. I was suddenly tipping backward through the shadows of this cruelly ironic play, while a daughter sits rocking, poised between a dark past and an even darker future. Must see THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE through February 26!

Barlow Adamson & Maureen Keiller/Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Then check out THE HONEY TRAP by Leo McGann part of B.U.’s New Play Initiative and co-presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. We’re back in Ireland–now up north. The action toggles back and forth in time to 1979 as two off-duty British soldiers go to a pub in Belfast one night where a “honey trap” awaits, in the form of two comely local girls — and all of their lives change forever.

The action takes the form of a flashback within an oral history project about the conflict in Northern Ireland, and is thus about the fluidity of memory, the complexity of war, and the guilt and anger that lingers in its aftermath.

Two sets of actors playing these characters younger and older convince and hold us. Tension builds slowly to the play’s climax, then in a final subtle turn, twists one more time just before the lights go out. Loaded as the issues are, McGann doesn’t quite ring enough that’s new out of it; but excellent performances especially by Maureen Keiller, Barlow Adamson, and Ben Swimmer give weight to a script that relies somewhat too heavily on bald exposition in the penultimate moments. THE HONEY TRAP, if not revelatory is nonetheless relevant and moving in a world where less and less is as sweet as it seems. Through February 26.