Marie Mullen in ‘Beauty Queen of Leenane’: Daughter and mother, victim and villain

Marie Mullen, co-star of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane."
Marie Mullen, co-star of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times )

To appreciate what makes Marie Mullen one of the great actresses of the Irish stage, you need only look at her work in that test of skill and stamina known as DruidSynge. She took on major roles in five plays — sometimes on the same day — during the J.M. Synge marathon presented a decade ago by the Galway-based Druid theater company.

The feat demonstrated her prowess as a performer and her commitment to the small but mighty Druid and its mission of celebrating Irish writers. Mullen, 63, is making her Los Angeles debut in another Druid show, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” which on Wednesday began previews for a run through Dec. 18 at the Mark Taper Forum.

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The company, led by noted director Garry Hynes, introduced the bleak yet comic tale and its author, Martin McDonagh, to the world in 1996. Mullen earned raves as middle-aged Maureen, who faces what could be her last chance to find love and escape her manipulative mother, Mag. She also won a Tony, one of four the production received when it moved to Broadway in 1998.

This time around, Mullen is playing Mag. Was it hard to make the switch from daughter to mother?

“When it comes to this character, I find that I have forgotten the production of 20 years ago,” she says. “The only reality for me is the relationship between myself and Aisling [O’Sullivan], my daughter. I’ve let go of all the mooring of the past. I have been taken over by the play and by my need to be Mag.”

Mullen, who is as warm and unassuming offstage as she is formidable on, spoke about “Beauty Queen” before a recent rehearsal at the Taper. Here are excerpts from the edited conversation:

How does it feel to return to the play after so long?

It’s exciting. We’ve been performing it in Ireland and I am happy to say it has survived and lived. All the elements are still resonating. The problems Martin deals with between mother and daughter still exist. It has proved itself to be a classic.

Marie Mullen, photographed at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
Marie Mullen, photographed at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Have audiences’ reactions changed?

People have always been very committed. At key moments, they gasp or shout, “Don’t leave!” or “Don’t give her the letter!”

Today’s audiences are more confident about taking on the humor and the sadness. Maybe they’ve seen a lot more of Martin and his take on the world. Also, I think this production is more accessible. Twenty years ago, it was unprecedented, this kind of play. We were finding our feet for a long time, figuring out how the language and the story worked.

Compare playing Maureen and Mag.

I loved Maureen’s vulnerability and yearning. There were so many levels to her personality. It was a challenge for an actor to actually attack those kinds of things. And Martin’s writing was like a breath of fresh air. His language is robust, very Irish, highly theatrical. There’s a great deal of humor. Nothing sentimental.  

Now, I am utterly concerned with Mag and understanding her raison d’etre. When you get older, you become dependent on small things. The world decreases. She cannot imagine existing without Maureen, who provides for her needs. I do have great empathy for her. I just can’t come to terms with her complete selfishness.

For actors, “Beauty Queen” is a balancing act that moves between tragedy and comedy, the human and horrific. Maureen and Mag are victims and villains.

It’s not easy. In rehearsal, certain elements had to be worked and worked. Unless you hit the right note you sound fake. With Martin, you must pay attention to his structure, his rhythm. It’s an actor’s job to be true to the text, to try to get into the author’s head. Garry is so helpful here.

You and Hynes have known each other for a long time.

We met in college in Galway in the early ’70s and with [actor] Mick Lally started Druid in 1975. I live in Dublin now but come back regularly. Garry is my dear friend and collaborator. She has an extraordinary sense of story, of what feels right. She is tough about getting results but so generous and has this childlike sense of wonder. Nothing makes me happier than exploring a script with her.

You’ve been an actor for more than 40 years. What’s on your wish list?

I love the stage. I do a lot of Irish stuff. I would like to do some Chekhov and Strindberg. I would really like to do more Shakespeare. I don’t know what parts. Maybe Queen Margaret or the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet.” Just to say the words. [She smiles at the thought.] I just want to continue acting.

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