If you thought the folks in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” were petty and dysfunctional, just wait until you meet the denizens of Martin McDonagh’s “The Lonesome West.”
Take the greasy and aging bachelor brothers Valene and Coleman Connor: That Coleman has just killed his father for insulting his hairstyle doesn’t seem to trouble the brothers at all, but a disagreement over a bag of potato chips or a new gas stove sends them into mortal combat.
One of the only regular visitors to the brothers’ home is Girleen, a flirtatious schoolgirl peddling her father’s illegal moonshine; she, in turn, is in love with the town’s parish priest, Father Welsh, who is an alcoholic in perpetual spiritual crisis.
While “The Lonesome West” is a step up in absurdity from “Beauty Queen,” it also represents a leap forward in ambition and achievement for McDonagh. For all its humor, spot-on characterization and well-calibrated dialogue, “Beauty Queen” was a plot-driven exercise. “The Lonesome West” offers a more in-depth examination of character and is, in the end, a moving and complicated examination of redemption that might even offer a glimmer — a wee distant glimmer — of hope.
Garry Hynes’ current restaging mines new riches from the play. While it previously seemed overly weighted toward the brothers’ story, now, thanks to the crucial recasting of Andrew Scott as Father Welsh, the play comes off as a beautifully balanced interplay of two contrasting stories, of two pairs of characters struggling against human nature and societal folly to make some kind of connection.
Not the least of what Scott brings to the role of Welsh is his youth — he is in his early 20s and looks it. That a priest who is so clearly fresh out of seminary would be thrown into the warped world of McDonagh’s Leenane adds a new level of pitch-black humor to the play. More importantly, though, Welsh’s character is part of a larger question addressed by the play: the question of the power of the Catholic church and the church’s ability — or lack of ability — to cope with the realities of contemporary life.
Valene and Coleman’s warped morality doesn’t come from nowhere, the play argues: That a person can be forgiven for murder just by confessing it while suicides are eternally damned is just one of the church’s many inconsistencies that McDonagh teases out here.
Scott’s chemistry with Dawn Bradfield’s Girleen is lovely: Their scenes together are as quietly touching as the Connor brothers’ hostile exchanges are wildly, dangerously hilarious. Maeliosa Stafford is as powerful as ever as the quietly seething Coleman. Arthur Riordan’s performance as Valene is almost eerily similar to that of Brian F. O’Byrne, who originated the role (and who is currently appearing on Broadway in “Beauty Queen”) — all stork-like posture, bulging eyes and hysterical fits of indignation — but that’s not to say that it comes off as derivative. Riordan remarkably manages to make the role his own.
The intimate size of Druid Lane Theater here serves the production well, but this is a play of such power that it could fill a much larger stage — perhaps even on Broadway?