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Visits this week to Tuna, Texas, and the Irish village of Leenane suggest that there’s a gleeful malevolence to small-town rancor that makes it quite outstrip the urban variety. You hear it in the inspired phrasing (“You’d better be ready for the Rapture, because I’m comin’ for you in a very Christian way”) of the threats floating on the West Texas breeze, and you see it in the glares that light up County Galway’s nights.
City-dwelling daughters have surely fought as passionately with their mothers as Maureen does with Mag in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, but few can have spent so much time imagining the details of matricide. Maureen (Nanna Ingvarsson) tells her mom that she’ll bring home a murderer to “cut off your old head and spit in your neck,” that last phrase flowing as naturally from the first as piss from a chamberpot. For her part, Mag (Linda High) doesn’t skip a beat, pointing out that the murderer would likely kill them both. Maureen seems to regard that as a reasonable price to pay.
To judge from their visitors, things are hardly more friendly outside their home. When local hothead Ray Dooley (Joe Baker) stops by, he has only to pick up a fireplace poker to be struck by its cop-clobbering potential. Ray is not what you’d call a deep thinker, but he has taken the measure of most authority figures (“Only the older priests go punchin’ you in the head”), and if his brother Pato (Scott Graham) is more gentle, well, chalk that up to his time spent in London, where the indignities of city life not only beat him down, but also had a calming influence. Pato has a crush on Maureen, Mag feels threatened, and therein hangs the tale.
Beauty Queen was playwright Martin McDonagh’s first foray into the fictional world of his Leenane Trilogy, and it’s easily his most potent. He has since returned there in a more strenuously comic mood for A Skull in Connemara and with a hilarious bluntness in the Sam Shepard– esque The Lonesome West, both of which spring from characters mentioned here in passing. But Beauty Queen does get the balance of bile and humor better than the other plays and makes the desperation of its protagonists considerably more wrenching.
Director Mark Rhea recently played one of the battling Lonesome West brothers, and he’s brought that play’s brisk tartness to his staging of this one. The dialogue crackles as Ingvarsson and High have at each other, landing blows as surely with their words as others might with fists. But for all the snarling they do, they also convey the frailness of women who’ve been utterly abandoned by the world. That Pato senses Maureen’s fragility even as she’s bellowing accusations gives the evening its cruel emotional promise, and Graham makes the quiet suitor such a warm, reassuring presence that audiences unfamiliar with Leenane may actually think things could work out. Best not to get hopes up too high.
Keegan Theatre’s mounting at the Church Street Theater misses a few minor cues—it’s cold in County Galway (the stove still glows red when the other lights dim), so why is Ray wandering around in shirtsleeves—but the production gets McDonagh’s general drift right and his rancor even righter.
With radio station OKKK dedicating “Lyin’ Eyes” to Tom DeLay, even as the Smut Snatchers do their durnedest to clean up hymnbooks and the Homecoming Reunion Queen contest degenerates into an insult-fest that would curl a porcupine’s quills, things are much as they’ve always been in Tuna, Texas.
Red, White and Tuna, currently at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, is the third installment in the continuing grin-provoking chronicle that performers Jaston Williams and Joe Sears and director Ed Howard have put together about the peculiar residents of the smallest town in Texas. There’s not a lot of plot, but what the show lacks in forward motion, it more than makes up for in hilarity. If you’ve not yet met gun-store owner Didi Snavely (“If we can’t kill it, it’s immortal”), tie-dyed freethinker Star Birdfeather (“I never liked stop signs—they’re so abrupt”), or Stanley Bumiller, whose spray-painted roadkill sculptures are finally fetching big bucks, now would be a good time to make their acquaintance.
They’re celebrating the Fourth of July with a cookout, fireworks, and the Varmint, Critter, and Pest Fest (which animal lover Petey Fisk will protest by locking himself in a plexiglass box with 50 live scorpions). Except for the Independent Nation of Free White Texas, which is a little slow on the uptake and will celebrate on July 5, the whole town will be there—even R.R. Snavely, Didi’s long-absent husband, who was abducted by aliens years ago. Bouffanted homemaker Bertha Bumiller and laid-back radio host Arles Struvie are hoping to get married, if they can settle on whether to honeymoon at the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup or the Passion Play in Eureka Springs. And of course, Aunt Pearl, that majestic mountain of a woman, is still waking up her husband with firecrackers.
Wiry Williams and ample Sears play all these folks (and more) with deft comic timing, and what has come to seem a natural—rather than a surprising—tenderness. If the characters were merely amusing, they’d have worn out their welcome by now, but the performers make them full-bodied and occasionally moving in their eccentricities. First-timers to Tuna will be more impressed by the way they move at a snail’s pace onstage but bustle through backstage costume changes that allow them to make entrances where and when they’re least expected. They must be, as one character says, “jumpin’ around like Tom Cruise” back there. Good to have them back in town.CP