Marie Mullen talks about ‘Mag,’ the manipulative mother

Druid Theatre Company — founded in Galway in 1975 by Garry Hynes, Marie Mullen, and the late Mick Lally — stands not only as one of the world’s most respected arts organizations, but also at the forefront of the development of Irish theatre. 

More than 20 years ago, an unsolicited script landed in their offices.  Penned by a little-known writer, the play would become “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”
Marie Mullen and Aisling O’Sullivan clash in Druid Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” at the Paramount, February 8 - 26. 	Craig Schwartz photoMarie Mullen and Aisling O’Sullivan clash in Druid Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” at the Paramount, February 8 - 26. Craig Schwartz photo
Set in a bleak house in rural Ireland, the dark-but-comic subversive thriller examined the cat-and-mouse relationship between a tyrannical, house-bound mother and her lonely, isolated daughter. 

As soon as Hynes read the piece, she knew the play was extraordinary. She was struck by the compelling dialogue and riveting characters.  This was not a rough draft from a fledging author but a taut, tense, fully realized work from someone with an exceptional voice.  

The author was Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, today internationally renowned for such stage works as “A Skull in Connemara,” “The Pillowman,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” and others.

Directed by Hynes, “Beauty Queen” opened in Galway, transferred to London’s West End, and then moved on to Broadway.  In New York, the production was nominated for six Tony Awards and walked away with four.  One went to Ms. Mullen as Best Actress and one to Ms. Hynes, who became the first woman in history to win a Tony for direction.

Now, two decades later, “Beauty Queen” is back, also from Druid, also directed by Hynes, and also starring Marie Mullen.  The difference is that Mullen played Maureen, the beleaguered daughter, in the original production.  This time, she returns as Mag, the manipulative mother.  In an interesting bit of casting, Mullen’s daughter, the actress Aisling O’Sullivan, plays Maureen.

This 20th anniversary tour has already played Galway, Los Angeles, and New York. It comes to Boston as part of the ArtsEmerson season, playing the Paramount from Feb. 8 to Feb. 26.  (Druid previously presented its acclaimed production of McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan” for ArtsEmerson in 2011.)

Mullen has been hailed as one of the great actresses of the Irish stage.  She spoke about her work by phone from her home in Ireland.  As lethal as she can appear as Mag, she was open, welcoming, and funny in conversation.  Here’s a condensed look at that chat.

Q. Like all of McDonagh’s work, “Beauty Queen” elicits a visceral reaction. 
A. I think it’s a classic myself. A wonderful play and a wonderful piece of work.  Audiences have no difficulty getting involved in the story – the mother and daughter thing.  As the story goes on, people get annoyed with me.  When Mag plots a certain ominous act the waves of hate come across the audience.  I mean, they were right beside us in the theater in LA and I thought somebody was going to get up and choke me! 

Q. A bit unnerving?
A. (Laughing) I was so scared.  I really was.  I just wanted to get off the stage.  Oh my God. (I would hear) “Oh, you can’t be serious!  You’re not going to do that!”  They would say it out loud.  I’m in my zone, you know.  I can hear these things, but they think I can’t!

Q. Has playing both Maureen and Mag, albeit 20 years apart, given you an advantage in understanding both characters so well?
A. I’m only discovering that now myself.  Anna Manahan played the mother when I was the daughter . . . When I started to play Mag I decided I was just going to have the confidence to go with the rhythms that Anna set up, which were in my head.  I kept referring to the script and I found those rhythms were spot on. They were right.  So why change them?  But what’s happened now is that more of me is beginning to come into it.  More of the way I look at things. 

Q. The play ranges from wickedly funny to deadly serious. Are audiences challenged by that?
A. It just means that I am constantly adjusting my performance to find the truth.  And it’s a good thing because it means it happens fresh on stage every night. Nothing is phoned in.  It can’t be phoned in. Not even the rhythms.  We are constantly adjusting to the audiences, to what they get, to what they don’t get . . . It’s a constant unveiling of a story every night, and for actors that’s really good because we have to be completely receptive to the audience.  And completely receptive to each other to make sure that we’re bouncing off each other in the right way. 

Q. Although the story is set in Ireland, the dysfunctional parent-child relationship is universal?
A. Yes. People say, “Oh I know where I am with this” and they immediately feel secure and they settle down to just take the play on . . . Martin has done that . . . It’s just his style.  To involve you.  To tell you about these characters.  Not to judge them, but just to ask you to listen to them and make up your own mind, whether you want to laugh at that line or whether you want to be annoyed at that character – whatever you need to be.  

Q. Thinking back, what drew you all to form Druid back in the 70s?
A. It was because the three of us were from the west of Ireland.  Because we had the rhythms that a lot of our playwrights had written in. That we wanted to explore plays and we wanted to put them on for people in the west, particularly in Galway.   I don’t know how much we had thought about touring at that stage, but very soon touring became a big deal in our company. To tour to small towns of Ireland and bring them professional theater and not have them having to drive to Dublin to see a play.  That’s how it really started. 

BIR: What a remarkable legacy!
MM: We were young, you know?  When you’re young, you say “Let’s try it.”  Anything’s possible.
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.

Druid Theater Company’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” Feb. 8 - 26, Paramount Stage, 559 Washington Street, Boston. Info: 617-824-8400 or artsemerson.org.