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How The Beauty Queen of Leenane helped me process my own mother-daughter drama
My ex-husband was in love with all things Irish. So when the Druid Theatre Company's production of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane came to Broadway in 1998, he was dying to go. We were too broke to afford tickets, so my parents bought seats for all four of us to see it together as part of his birthday present.
My parents and I didn't realize what we were getting into. A darkly comic and unremittingly bleak examination of a shockingly dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship,The Beauty Queen of Leenane was not light fare and probably not the best show to see with my mom. Back then, we had our own issues. We fought a lot and about almost anything. At the end, when my mother said she was moved, I told her I thought it was distorted and silly. I dismissed the production along with her opinion.I knew that my mom, Estelle, was an amazing person. She was smart, funny, politically astute, creative, and dynamic. Yet when people said, "You're just like your mother!" as a compliment, it made me want to scream, pull away, and try to hurt her feelings. She wanted me to be safe and successful in a way that felt smothering and insufferable. She used any emotional means necessary to make her points felt. And she desperately needed me in a way that I found infuriating.
I know she was dumbfounded by the zigzagging path I took through life. It irked her that I didn't always do what she wanted. I'm not sure if she understood how much I wanted her approval, and how angry I was when I believed she withheld it.
Our fights were intense, absorbing, and, to some extent, theatrical. Once, on a family trip to Vienna, my mother became upset because, despite being Jewish, I went on and on about the beauty of a chapel in St. Stephen's Cathedral. When our spat about religion grew too heated for angry whispers, we took to the magical cobblestone square outside, where snow was falling softly in the twilight and we had room to unleash our anger at full volume.
"Why don't you just become Christian?!" she shouted.
"I don't have to be Christian just because we have a Christmas tree!" I yelled back, knowing the holiday symbol bothered her.
Hearing English, a middle-aged couple walked over and asked politely in their Midwestern twang:
"Oh, are you Americans, too?"
"Can't you see we're in the middle of an argument?" I barked at them, not missing a beat. I wasn't going to stop for anything. Our argument wasn't over.
Fast forward two decades. I was curious how I would react to the Druid Theatre Company's revival of The Beauty Queen of Leenane at BAM, where I am a member. The production boasts the same director, Garry Hynes, and star, Marie Mullen, from the Broadway version. Only now Mullen's playing Mag, the sixty-something chair-ridden mother, not Maureen, the 40-year-old virgin daughter she portrayed before.
My identity had also completely changed over the years. Back in 1998, I was "Estelle's daughter." Now, with two teenage boys under my belt, I'm most definitely "Blaise and Zane's mom." Like Mullen, I had grown out of one role and into the other.
In scene after scene, I watched Mag and Maureen (played by Aisling O'Sullivan) pick at emotional scabs, expose their respective insecurities, and betray each other's secrets. While I recognized their desperate codependence, I reluctantly admitted that I understood their intense desire to hurt each other, both psychologically and physically. The ugliness of the play was not anywhere near what my mother and I experienced! But the intense desire to break free from your mother was certainly familiar.I'm lucky. In the intervening years between seeing The Beauty Queen of Leenane on Broadway and my mother's death, we came to a truce. In fact, I learned that needing one another was not a bad thing -- not by a long shot.
When my marriage imploded, my mother was there. She was my rock and my compadre through years of single parenting. She kvelled over every one of her grandsons' accomplishments, from their first words to their first music recitals. Did we still disagree? Sure. But it wasn't antagonistic. It was our own noisy form of rhetoric. I came to count on it as a way for me to figure out what I really meant or wanted, or thought was important. And then she was gone. For a time, I was lost.
I saw that same look of loss on Maureen's face as she rocked slowly in the last scene of the play, oozing despair as she realized what life without her mother was going to be. I wondered what my own mother had experienced in that moment, with me, her angry, needy, headstrong yet beloved daughter in the seat next to her. And I wished I could go back in time and tell her that, for us, in the end, it all turned out better than we could have imagined. Now, when people say, "You're just like your mother," I smile and say, "Thank you."
Top image: The Beauty Queen of Leenane at BAM; photo by Richard Termine / Courtesy of BAM