Part of August Wilson’s cycle of plays about the black experience in 20th Century America, Jitney—originally produced well after a number of the plays had established themselves, but in fact the play Wilson wrote first—is set in 1977, its locale the offices of a car service in Pittsburgh’s Hill district. The workforce are a collection of drivers of all stripes, most of them well past middle age, and a young, hotheaded engineer—all supervised by the unsentimental Becker (John Douglas Thompson), whose iron-fisted rule is ultimately always tempered by compassion. Except when dealing with his grown son, Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), recently released from a 20 year prison sentence served for murder. The relationship between father and son is one that cries out for resolution, but Becker is too bitter, Booster is too defensive, and when at last dad rumbles to his kid, “You ain’t nothin’ to me, boy,” the heartbreak isn’t merely onstage. The audience takes in an audible breath—the statement is that damning.
Structurally—as often with Wilson—the play is long-winded (as in over- and repetitively written) and something of an organizational hodgepodge, mixing domestic drama (the saga of the young engineer [André Holland] and his wife [Carra Patterson]), workplace ensemble comedy and the core father-son conflict in a manner that seems, if not random, then certainly without discernable narrative or thematic plan…but this is one of those instinctively wrought works that is ultimately greater than the individual ingredients and how they’re combined, primarily because the combination yields a riveting and often very funny sense of ambience, era and community…a sense that creates its own dramatic unity.
A splendid cast (the others include Harvey Blanks, Anthony Chisholm, Michael Potts, Keith Randolph Smith, and Ray Anthony Thomas) shines most engagingly under the nicely paced direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and there will be few to deny that though this was the playwright’s first, it is in many ways among his best.
And into a life of wide desolation there comes a ray of hope—that’s the premise of Irish dramatist Martin McDonaugh’s play The Beauty Queen of Leenane whose Druid Theatre revival has come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The play created a great stir upon its debut, a little over two decades ago (and its imported American debut in 2000); it not only heralded the debut of a worthy then-young voice, but a voice of unusual maturity—both in his understanding of character and his development of plot. What makes the revival notable is that it is imported from the same theatre company, Ireland’s Druid; and that Marie Mullen, who originally played the title role, is back. But not in the title role, and the difference in persona is stark indeed. And the original director is back too.
McDonaugh’s tale, set in the Leenane of the title (a small town in County Galway) tells of Maureen Folan (Aisling O’Sullivan), a plain woman, a virgin at forty (not for lack of desire), but not wholly without a certain prettiness when she has cause to smile. But that’s almost never, for she is bound, as if by prison chains to the service of her elderly mother Mag (Ms. Mullen), the picture (im)perfect definition of a slattern—overweight, homely, hateful, manipulative, spiteful, lazy, useless. It’s like being in bondage to a troll. There is no love here, not even affection, just a crushing sense of duty. Then one day, the town layabout, Ray (Aaron Monaghan) delivers an invitation to a dance from his older brother Pato (Marty Rea). Mag destroys the invitation, but Maureen is wise to the all-too-typical deception and attends anyway. And there, for the first time, in Pato’s arms, she finds a road to salvation. Now the trick is staying on the path…
For a non-genre character study, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” has an unusual amount of plot, and an unusual amount of withheld information. Mr. McDonaugh doesn’t “deconstruct” his characters in the manner of, say, O’Neill. Rather, he keeps building them, parceling out surprising backstory in the manner of ironic reversals. As each revelation adds depth it also strips us of our preconceived notions. None of these characters are quite what we think they are when we meet them. Not even Mag.
The wit and lyricism of the performances is matched by the direction of Garry Hynes—seeming much like her original iteration, but then, why wouldn’t it?
There are no apologies made for Irish locution, diction or popular references. Everything operates at a hard-core, high level: the verisimilitude, the humanity, the humor…and the heartbreak. Rarely has such a dreary corner of the world been made to shine so brightly…