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Dueling Tyros 

Wednesday, Nov 24 1999
Last week saw a pair of major West Coast premieres by a pair of novice playwrights. Spring Storm, written by Tennessee Williams when he was 26, came to faltering life in Marin; and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, written by Martin McDonagh and first produced in Ireland when he was also 26, made its California debut in Berkeley. Bean-counting with writers' ages is ill-advised, I know, but in this case I can't help it. Williams would have been 88 if he'd lived to see his buried and abandoned novice play produced last week at the Marin Theater Company; and the comparison with McDonagh, the following night, would have killed him.

Spring Storm was a failure at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1937-38. "Hardly a favorable comment," Williams lamented to his journal, and he would see almost seven more years of mortifying failure before The Glass Menagerie reversed his luck. Why Storm failed in workshop has very little to do with the writing itself. Its script is pretty damn good for a student piece. The story's clear enough and the characters, especially Aunt Lila, are round and full. But the play lasts three hours, with a titular metaphor that clobbers you like thunder and brambles of dialogue an older playwright would have had the sense to prune.

Heavenly Critchfield is a wild young thing earning a reputation for herself in the spring of 1937 among the chattering old ladies of Port Tyler, Miss. She smokes, sasses back, and pours whiskey into the punch. She also fools around with Dick Miles, an overall-wearing stud who works, romantically enough, as an assistant pharmacist. Heavenly's family is rich, though, and her mom wants to marry her off to a cultured wimp named Arthur Shannon. A gawky librarian called Hertha happens to be in love with Arthur, too (as is Heavenly's mother), which complicates things.

Storm has all the elements of Williams' later plays (including a mother-in-denial, who offers lemonade to her daughter as "liquid refreshment"), but most of his usual frank sexual steam gets diluted here by longueurs of dialogue. The Marin cast, overall, gives the work a strong treatment, and without excellent performances from Stacy Ross, Allison McDonell, Richard Robichaux, and Linda Hoy, the show might be insufferable.

McDonell plays Heavenly in bobbing blond curls; she seems nervous, effervescent, and lithe all at once. She argues with her mom over the "morality" of marrying one man (Arthur) after losing her virginity to another (Dick). "It's you who doesn't know what morality means, Mother, it's you who wants to make a prostitute of me!" But her mom insists: "A girl whose name is listed in six or seven of the best Southern genealogies shouldn't throw away the best that's in her!" The argument is tempered by Aunt Lila, a marvelously earthy fat old maid who sits attached by headphones to a huge walnut radio in the Critchfield living room. She's the only full-grown adult in the show with both sense and strength, and Linda Hoy performs her perfectly.

Richard Robichaux is tentative as Arthur Shannon, the rich, overcultured wimp, until he gets drunk. Then he gives a powerfully nasty speech to poor Hertha, in the library, throwing her books on the floor and pretending to declare his love. Hertha is shy and gawky, a glasses-wearing romantic -- in Stacy Ross' hands she becomes the show's center of gravity, its feminine embodiment of Williams. She's ravished by good writers, has soaring ambitions of the soul, and lets tart and catty remarks escape unexpectedly from her mouth. Before Arthur arrives in the library she gives a long and excellent speech about God's cruelty to the unbeautiful: "Tell him it's not fair to give the homely girls the same feelin's he gave the pretty girls." I wanted the play to be about Hertha, and you might say that Williams corrected his focus a few years later, by centering The Glass Menagerie on Laura, the same type of girl.

Not all the acting is perfect. Jamie Gannon doesn't radiate enough dangerous masculine energy as Dick Miles, and part of his problem is that Dick is a cardboard cliché. When he crashes a garden party during the climactic storm, with overalls muddy and ripped, and the paper lanterns bob overhead in the wind as he asks Heavenly to come live with him in a shack while he digs levees against the rising river -- well, you realize that Dick was not the only person who, in 1937, had some hard work ahead of him.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane turns on the same theme, a daughter struggling against her dried-up mom. But where Spring Storm dances around its topic with doily daintiness, Beauty Queen strikes like a snake. Martin McDonagh is the only playwright since Shakespeare to have four productions running concurrently in London's West End; not even Shakespeare did that before he was 30. Supposedly McDonagh is also an asshole who hates "the theater" and would rather be writing films. Whatever. The point is that he can write scathing, powerful, well-made plays, which is what theater managers thirst for.

Maureen Folan lives with her mother in a mud-walled house in Leenane, County Galway. Mag, the mother, sits like a sour lump in her rocker and makes cutting, cruel remarks as she orders Maureen around. The way they bitch at each other in the kitchen is almost a parody; McDonagh has created a tough style of Irish play to match the Pogues' style of Irish song. When Maureen gets invited to a party across the village at the Dooleys', Mag burns the invitation. Maureen learns about the party anyway, and brings home Pato, who's been living in England for years. She flaunts Pato in the morning in front of her disgusted ma. "You'll have ta be puttin' that t'ing in me again, Pato," she says, in a voice meant to be overheard. "I do have a taste for it now. A mighty old taste."

Ugly old Mag is the antithesis of all the beauty Maureen wants to feel. Some time after Pato returns to England he writes with the news that he's landed a job in Boston; would Maureen like to come too? Sure she would. But Pato sends the letter to his sullen and feckless brother with specific instructions to deliver it to Maureen "in her hand," and the brother -- well, the brother, let's just say, tries his best.

From there the play moves through several intense revelations; it has a perfect and devastating arc. A few scenes end flatly, two others are forced, but as a whole it's an example of playwriting talent coming full-fledged out of the egg. The Berkeley Rep gives the work a respectful, no-bullshit production, too. Michelle Morain plays Maureen with seamless conviction, raving at and chiding her mom in an unfaltering brogue; and Angela Paton plays Mag with impeccable comic timing, making the old woman both human and bottomlessly cruel. Jeffrey King also hits a nice stride as Pato, though his accent fades in and out.

There's no question that McDonagh will have a major career. I suppose he already does. Of course, he may be good only for writing sharp neat scripts and playing an angry young man; whether he'll survive to transform movies or theater, like Williams, is still an open question. But The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a clean accomplishment, and it sings a skirling dirge.


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