The Beauty Queen of Leenane: A dark Irish comedy that is "like watching a car wreck."

Amber Bjork and Sally Wingert play the scariest mother/daughter tandem of 2016.

Amber Bjork and Sally Wingert play the scariest mother/daughter tandem of 2016.

Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane was an Irish-accented two-by-four to the face when it premiered in 1996. Nearly two decades later, this darkly comic tale of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship still intrigues creators and audiences.

“It’s always in production and there are all kinds of translations. There was even one in Tehran,” says Carin Bratlie Wethern, who is directing the Theatre Pro Rata production opening this weekend at Park Square Theatre’s Andy Boss Thrust stage.

“This was his first piece. He wrote it in two weeks. There is something very compelling and about how immediate and visceral it is. It’s like watching a car wreck. You have to rubberneck on this story. That is a reason why everyone is so drawn to it,” Bratlie Wethern says.

The story centers on Maureen, a 40-year-old spinster, and her mother, Mags. The two live alone in the family home and have built up a heavy, co-dependent lifestyle that keeps both of them trapped. Maureen finally sees a way out via an old admirer who has returned to their village on a visit. That potential happiness is tested, however by the demands Mags makes on her daughter and the secrets the pair share.

The play doesn’t shirk on the pair’s poverty. “They aren’t putting peat on the fire because it is quaint. They do it because they are poor,” says Sally Wingert, who plays the role of Mags.

It’s also definitely a black comedy. “[McDonagh] makes you laugh at things in the theater that you would not laugh at outside of. I don’t like to watch awful people being awful all of the time. He takes these awful characters and makes them fun to watch,” says Amber Bjork, who co-stars as Maureen.

“It is a play that keeps revealing its secrets,” Wingert says.

The play offers plenty of challenges for Wingert and Bjork. While the pair knew of the show and its reputation, this is their first time around with the work. “At Pro Rata, we’ve been interested in McDonagh’s work. We have read quite a few of his scripts and we read this one in the play-reading series. It was just a great time,” says Bjork, who is a Pro Rata company member.

McDonagh went on to write half a dozen shows set in Ireland before branching to pieces like The Pillowman, A Behanding in Spokane, and films like In Bruges.

“I love his language. I am a big language girl," Bratlie Wethern says. "His language is unique and incredibly challenging to the actors. They are in the thick of it right now. It is so beautiful to listen to.” 

“It’s really syntactic gymnastics,” Wingert says about the play’s distinct dialect, which is drawn from its location, County Galway.

The dialect, which mixes Irish and English, offers a commentary on, “themes of colonization and English immigration and how the English forced their language on Ireland,” Bjork says. “They twist their grammar so much it is difficult to get your head around it.”

All of this has not made the process difficult. “It is much harder to do a poorly written play,” Wingert says. “We want to rise to McDonagh’s skill level. It would be difficult to navigate this if it wasn’t so well written.”


The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Previews Wednesday and Thursday; opens Friday through Jan. 24

Park Square Theatre

20 W. 7th Place, St. Paul


For tickets and more information, call 651-291-7005 or visit online.