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Superb acting helps keep audience on edge in dark ‘Beauty Queen of Leenane’

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In theater as in life, it’s exceedingly rare to encounter someone who possesses nary a single redeeming feature.

But the conniving and scrofulous Mag Folan comes mighty close in Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,’’ now at the Paramount Center under the auspices of ArtsEmerson.

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A whiny, wheedling creature of bottomless need and self-absorption, 70-year-old Mag is grimly intent on keeping her 40-year-old daughter, Maureen, under her thumb in the dingy cottage they share in a rural area on the west coast of Ireland.

Sometimes the daughter silently gazes at her mother, as if pondering her options. Or has Maureen already exercised one of those options? And what, exactly, might constitute her ultimate breaking point?

Those questions hang ominously in the air almost from the start of this excellent production by the Galway-based Druid Theatre Company, helmed by the troupe’s cofounder and artistic director, Garry Hynes, who demonstrates a knack for artfully keeping the audience off-balance and on edge.

When it premiered at Druid in 1996, with the Anglo-Irish McDonagh still only in his mid-20s, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane’’ heralded the arrival of a remarkably assured playwright with a distinctive, blackly comic voice. Yes, there are laughs in “Beauty Queen,’’ but McDonagh wants you to choke on them. Should you be tempted at any point to relax and classify the Folans as merely “quirky,’’ naught but an amusing duo given to endless bickering, the playwright stands ready to disabuse you of that notion by taking you to a dark and unsettling place.

This production offers an intriguing wrinkle: Mother Mag is portrayed by Marie Mullen, who played daughter Maureen during the 1998 Broadway run (also directed by Hynes) of “Beauty Queen.’’ Portraying Maureen this time is Aisling O’Sullivan. Mullen and O’Sullivan make a superb team.

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Above Francis O’Connor’s set can be seen an inviting blue rectangle of sky, but there seems to be no escape or even oxygen for the inhabitants of the Folan household, locked in family dynamics that seem both twisted and timeless. Ensconced in a rocking chair and facing a TV set located on the floor, Mag keeps Maureen busy fetching her tea, her porridge, the nutritional drink Complan, whatever she needs, whenever she decides she needs it. When the daughter isn’t watching, Mag pours her own urine down the sink.

Years of this day-to-day existence have left their mark on Maureen. Although she snaps frequently and angrily at Mag, she almost seems resigned to domestic servitude as she drags herself, worn down and embittered, around their house. Almost, but not quite. “Sometimes I dream . . . Of anything. Other than this,’’ Maureen says to her mother, whose scowl tells us what she thinks of that dream.

Out of nowhere, a chance for happiness presents itself in the form of Pato Dooley (the appealing Marty Rea), a good-hearted local guy who has returned home for a visit after working a construction job in England. He and Maureen spend a tender night together, and the smitten Pato dubs her “the beauty queen of Leenane.’’ Weary of both England and Ireland, Pato wants to relocate to Boston, and he wants Maureen to go with him.

Like the Inishmaan of McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,’’ which also premiered in 1996, the Leenane of this play seems like the kind of small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business, and nobody forgets anything, ever. That claustrophobic picture of the village is communicated not just by the chafing of Pato and Maureen but by the inanities spouted by Pato’s obtuse brother Ray (the very funny Aaron Monaghan), who is still seething over a minor episode involving Maureen a decade earlier.

Playing mother Mag all these years after portraying daughter Maureen, Mullen makes the most of her chance to tackle the other end of the generational spectrum. Depending on what form of manipulation she has in mind, Mullen’s Mag ranges from obsequiousness to near-feral ferocity, peering through narrowed eyes at her deliberately shrunken world, determined to quash anything or anyone that threatens to change it. Mullen’s performance adds up to such a persuasive portrait of unbridled malevolence that you’re a bit startled when the actress smiles radiantly at the curtain call.

As Maureen, O’Sullivan elicits our sympathy, especially in the character’s tentative fumbling toward romance. But the actress skillfully keeps us guessing, too: How damaged is Maureen by the stifled life she has led, and how far might she go if thwarted in an attempt to escape that life?

THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE

Play by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Garry Hynes. Production by Druid Theatre Company, presented by ArtsEmerson. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Paramount Center, Boston. Through Feb. 26. Tickets $20-$80, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.



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