Actresses Reprise Mother-Daughter Roles in

Backyard Reinassance's Solid Production of: "The Beauty Queen of Leenane"

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

Jessica John and Deborah Gilmour Smyth. Photo Daren Scott.

I can only imagine the conversations while planning a season and the shows that will make it. Backyard Renaissance continues bringing thought-provoking and gasp-inducing work. Following March's "How I Learned to Drive" their second production, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane", goes from rural Maryland into West Ireland, up the mountains of Connemara, a small town in Galway. For a San Diego Theatre context, this is the third Irish play of the year following LAMB'S "Outside Mullingar", and Scripps Ranch's "Chapatti". It is interesting to see how the geographic playwriting thread goes.

'Leenane, by British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, marks the first professional production of this play in San Diego in over two decades, directed by Francis Gercke and reuniting actresses Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Jessica John as mother and daughter, after winning the 2023 Craig Noel award for August: Osage County as Outstanding Production and John taking the Outstanding Featured Performance in a Play award. 

The story is set in 1995 with Mag (Deborah Gilmour Smyth) and Maureen Folan (Jessica John) living together in these remote mountains, which definitely take part in the many triggers of the already toxic and stale relationship between them. Maureen now 40 years old, is one of three sisters and unlike the other two, is still living at home and taking care of her decaying mother who is 70. The Dooley family has two brothers, Pato (MJ Sieber) and Ray the youngest (Nick Daugherty). Pato is working in London but comes back for a visit and has a party inviting the Folans in writing through his brother as the messenger. Maureen, after a heated conversation with her mother, goes to the party and has a wonderful time with Pato. When he returns to London, Pato writes another letter to Maureen. Between Ray being messenger again and Mag's plans, the future envisioned in the letter has its own look for each involved, provoking drastic actions with definitive consequences. 

Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Nick Daugherty. Photo Daren Scott

McDonagh's writing digs deep into the psychological rooted in the fear of loneliness, abandonment,  and selfishness. How the wheels turn when a parent needs care and how a child as an adult, resolves that need. There are also the topics of mental illness, cultural backgrounds, and stereotypes. Tony Cucuzzella's scenic design houses these feelings illustrating a neglected living space that senses a creepy vibe. Francis Gercke's direction along with Hannah Meade as associate director and intimacy coach created a -necessary- thick, fourth wall that felt like a Gesell Dome where audiences are acutely observing what is happening while emotions marinate and materialize. Curtis Mueller in lighting pared up tight and creatively with Logan Kaumuali’i in the sound design to deliver revealing moments whether it was fading or going abruptly to black along with the opposite, coming into a bright light synchronized to perfection with a tingling sound effect that rounded out the resolving, suspenseful feeling. The TV is usually on in Mag's house and the reflection effect of the moving images on the screen was well done too. Lots of movement and even wardrobe changes took place in the dark before revealing to the audience, and the mapping between sound, lighting, and actors was spot-on-pristine. I appreciated the dynamic with Mag's shawl that hung on a rocking chair. That shawl alone had its own blocking and stage direction having it be a central point that balanced the visual while everything was happening. 

Jessica John and MJ Sieber. Photo Daren Scott.
Deborah Gilmour Smyth's virtuoso portrayal is multilayered showing how obnoxious and selfish Mag is while strongly guarding her vulnerability. Not an easy task. Gilmour Smyth and Jessica John definitely took where they left off last year as the strong energy came back and they made the Tenth Avenue Arts venue shake as Jessica embodied Maureen's exhaustion and frustrations with their abrupt turns while also showing her wish for a life with a partner. Continuing with the Craig Noel Award winners over here, MJ Sieber gave a straightforward rendition of Pato, and even though Pato is a -total guy- and you cannot do much for him, Sieber delivered with intention and feeling. 

It is cool to witness an actor's evolution through the stages and seeing Nick Daugherty from the beginning of last year with The Ferryman and Public Enemy to this production now, Daugherty is coming into his own, debuting a new look, no longer involving those signature curls, with a more set stage work that showed a good balance between accent/dialect, comedy, and rapport. A company's choices when staging a production are truly its way of communicating to the audience. Nick was really funny as Ray and with hardly articulating a smile, he truly grasped the role reflecting the page-to-stage effort. Jessica John Gercke's costume choices showed a creative range choosing "mountain-like" pieces for Maureen like boots and heavy jackets along with a flirty party dress and nightgown, while playing with the options for the male roles where Pato is simpler than Ray who has more variety using different toned sneakers, pants and track like jackets. Mag is mostly sitting but still has her wardrobe variety that marked scene changes and made the rhythm flow accordingly. 

Backyard created a solid production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane with good casting that delivers a complex story with all its feelings creating space for interpretations. 

Currently playing until July 13th. For performance days and times please click here

No comments:

Post a Comment