Alfred Hitchcock, who, they say, knew a thing or two about suspense, could not have improved on the tingling moments in which the old lady in the rocking chair is trying to get her impatient young caller to go on about his business and leave with her that letter -- a love letter from his brother -- which young Ray Dooley has promised on oath to deliver into the hand of the old lady's daughter.
"Be off and give your letter to me so, Ray, now, and I'll make sure she gets it," says the old lady, whose name is Mag. Ray paces the room, puts the letter down, picks it up again, puts it down. She pretends not to notice. Cat and mouse.
"And it isn't opening it you would be?" says he.
"It is not. Sure, a letter is a private thing. If it isn't my name on it, what business would it be of mine?"
"And may God strike you dead if you do open it?" "And may God strike me dead if I do open it . . . "
Will he or won't he? Will she or won't she? Will the young Irishman, in his boredom and irritation, walk out of her house, leaving his brother's letter behind? Will Mag, Maureen's mother, open it? What will God do if she does?
In the blackout that follows this scene in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a firecrackling play by Martin McDonagh, the actress in the rocking chair has more than once heard hisses.
"They vocalize, some in the audience do," says Anna Manahan, the wily, domineering Mag Folan of a production that has four brilliant performances all down the line -- herself as Mag, Marie Mullen as her 40-year-old virgin daughter Maureen, Tom Murphy as feckless, sardonic Ray Dooley, and Brian F. O'Byrne as Ray's big brother Pato, the suitor who represents Maureen Folan's last chance ever to spring free of the selfish old pseudo-invalid in the rocking chair.
"A man who saw it here on a fundraising night came up later and said to me he'd never hated anyone onstage as much since Iago. I took it as a compliment," says actress Manahan -- as well she might.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane, McDonagh's first play -- two years later he had four works including this one running simultaneously in London -- received such raves in its New York premiere late last February at Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theatre that in mid-April, transplanted intact -- same cast, same director Garry (nee Gearoldine) Hynes -- it reopened at Broadway's Walter Kerr.
"It was Garry, whom I'd known since she was a young student directing shows 20 years ago at Galway University, who drove down to see me at my home in Waterford City in the winter of 1995, right near Christmas. No matter how well-known you are, or how talented," said Anna Manahan, "Garry likes to hear. Likes to hear the tones, wants to hear the right note. She knows from that."
Reading the script Garry Hynes had brought her, Ms. Manahan was fascinated.
"I couldn't believe it was a first play, and I also couldn't believe a young man of 25, as he then was" -- an Irishman born and raised in London, for that matter -- "could write so truly about a woman of 40 and a woman of 70. I don't like to throw the word 'genius' around, but I think he shows signs of genius."
Sitting in her dressing room, black-haired, black-eyed, black-sweatered Anna Manahan, one of Ireland's leading actresses, ticked off the production history of Beauty Queen, from its start as a presentation of the Hynes-founded Druid Theatre Company at Town Hall, Galway City, to a first run at London's Royal Court, an Irish tour, a Dublin booking, an Australian tour, a second run at the Royal Court and now America.
"I've been in every performance," Manahan said. Then, wryly: "Every time I tried to get out, I was blackmailed into staying. They threatened to kill me. This is a wonderful character to play and all that, but sometimes one wishes for something else. The greatest sadness for me is I'm unable to get home. A great loneliness . . ."
As in the play?
"That's right. And though it's been exciting to be in on the birth of a play like this, you still have to equate it with film and telly, which are shorter and pay more money, enable you to put your feet up and smell the roses."
It is to be doubted that, roses or no, Anna Manahan will ever put her feet up. A widow "since I was very young" -- her husband Colm O'Kelly, stage manager at Dublin's Gate Theatre, died of polio, in Egypt, at age 27 -- she's been acting all her life ("Never known anything else"), and was last in New York 30 years ago in Brian Friel's Lovers as Hannah, a daughter domineered by her mother.
"So here we are, 30 years later, in a reversal of roles."
Among her celebrated performances -- leading up to this, the most celebrated of all -- were Big Rachel in the original Royal Court production of John Arden's Live Like Pigs, and Bessie Burgess in a National Theatre production of Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, for which the London Evening Standard hailed her as Most Promising Newcomer.
She's kept that promise. Her portrayal of Mag, she says, is based on no one and nothing except what's in the script. "That's one of the wonderful things about Marty McDonagh. These characters are what they are; they're not subtext. He's only interested in the instant happening, the here and now of the play."
As when old Mag in her rocking chair cocks a slantwise peek at that letter lying there, gingerly extends a hand toward it, senses that she may be spotted, snatches the hand back, waits for the door to shut behind young Ray Dooley, waits, waits . . .
-- By Jerry Tallmer