Taking a spinster

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Julia Brothers and Jonathan Rhys Williams: Nice Celtic neck tattoo.

Julia Brothers and Jonathan Rhys Williams: Nice Celtic neck tattoo.

Rated 5.0

The B Street Theater has binged so often of late on routine, junk-food comedies that it’s tempting to approach a new show there with diminished expectations.

So the current production, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, comes as a particularly welcome surprise. It’s as though the clock had been set back to the mid-1990s, when the B Street mounted many ambitious shows, and a trip to the theater was, as one envious director working at another theater company put it, “a chance to recharge your creative batteries.”

It starts, as memorable shows usually do, with a really good script. (And to realize that this was Martin McDonagh’s first play, written when he was in his 20s!) You may recall McDonagh’s related play The Lonesome West, which the B Street staged about two years ago.

Set in impoverished rural Ireland, the story concerns a crabby, elderly woman, played by Wanda McCaddon, who both relies on and manipulates her single, 40-ish daughter (Julia Brothers). Two brothers visit by turns, punkish teen Ray Dooley (Jonathan Rhys Williams) and the smooth and much older Pato (Allen McKelvey), who sparks a late-blooming romance.

It’s a compact, economical piece, but there’s so much going on: giddy love, inward insecurity, mental entrapment, economic desperation that spurs emigration, personal bitterness that’s simmered for years, all the way into abusive behavior and madness. The gabby chat and humorous conflict of the opening scenes lead into very desperate and dark events after intermission.

The cast does strong work throughout, McCaddon with her lined face and squinting eyes, Williams with youthful swagger. McKelvey uses affable charm that amplifies his good looks, concealing vulnerability—his character’s aware that he’s not many steps removed from becoming a loser in life.

But at the center is Julia Brothers, who goes from resentment to giddy love to icy menace (and, ultimately, devastated regret). Quite a sequence, and Brothers is believable at each step along the way. It’s hard to take your eyes off her whenever she’s onstage.

Director Ken Kelleher runs a tight ship—critical elements flow seamlessly from one scene into the next, and your attention is effortlessly focused on important words or props. Ron Dumonchelle uses some lingering “afterglow” to good effect in several scenes.

It’s the best show that the B Street has staged in quite some time. And the company plans to stage McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara in the next year.