The Beauty Queen of Leenane By Martin McDonagh Directed by Jeremy Skidmore; At Round House Theatre Bethesda to Sept. 15 In Martin McDonagh's first play, a mother, a daughter, and their tiny, vile world

Crone Warfare: A mother manipulates her adult daughter.

Firebrand playwright-filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s ongoing exploration of the most insidious emotions that fester within our frail hearts began with The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the sly 1996 bonechiller that announced him, while he was only in his mid-20s, as a rude talent to which attention must be paid. Set in a remote province of western Ireland in the late 1980s, the play traps us in a shabby cottage with Mag Folan, an ancient crone clinging to life only, it seems, to torment Maureen, her daughter and live-in caretaker. But Maureen is no longer young herself, and she sees her own prospects for escaping a solitary spinsterhood dimming.

Isolation is a fertile breeding ground, the piece suggests, for cruelty and madness. In director Jeremy Skidmore’s formidable new production for Round House Theatre, set designer Tony Cisek has seized upon this idea, showing us a hint of the bitter sky and arduous hill surrounding the impressive cutaway house he’s built.

Inside, Mag and Maureen reargue arguments they’ve had countless times before, with Mag choosing to rely on Maureen for the smallest of services, mainly the purchase, heating, and stirring of beverages and prepared foods. (There’s a lot of exhausting negotiation about the maximum acceptable lumpiness in Mag’s vile powdered nutrition drink, which is probably something the Irish equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration should weigh in on.) Mag repays her daughter’s kindnesses by trying to sabotage Maureen’s efforts to establish emotional ties to a world outside of the house, like Kathy Bates in Misery. If Mag’s methods are less extreme, it’s only because she lacks the strength to swing a sledgehammer.

McDonagh’s stage work got bloodier after this one, and the rewards have been highly variable. The Pillowman, which got a superb production at Studio Theatre in 2007, was an unshakable examination of the relationship between fictitious and real-life violence. His most recent play, 2010’s A Behanding in Spokane, which Keegan Theatre staged earlier this year, offered ugliness without insight.

What Beauty Queen does brilliantly is assign and abruptly reassign our sympathies from one character to another. The two veteran actresses here enable this gambit with relish. Sarah Marshall, who only seven years ago was spectacularly miscast as Miss Jean Brodie, is firmly inside her wheelhouse here as the conniving spinster-child Mag. As Maureen, Kimberly Gilbert has the hairiest road to travel, from workaday exasperation to weary disappointment to bodice-ripping tragedy to rage. In a confident, measured performance, she hits these marks without ever seeming like she’s hitting marks. The tale’s menfolk are plot functionaries, more or less, but Todd Scofield and Joe Mallon are both quite capable as the brothers Dooley, who seem to be the only visitors the Folan ladies ever entertain. As he would again in Behanding, McDonagh opens the second act with a monologue from a secondary character. Scofield, playing the elder brother, handles the speech with a tenderness that makes the revelations to follow all the more wrenching—even if Skidmore kind of telegraphs one of them with a harsh shift in lightning.

Skidmore’s a busy guy these days: His concurrent production of A Few Good Men at Keegan Theatre is set to close one day before this show does, and his world premiere production of journalist Jim Lehrer’s play Bell opens at National Geographic a few days before that. This Beauty Queen offers evidence of why he’s in demand. His telling of this brutal tale is sympathetic but merciless.

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