By centering the play’s action on the lives of the Folan women, McDonagh creates a bleak picture of life in the western region of present-day Ireland. The setting symbolizes how the remoteness of their spiritual existence from any kind of lineage has come to this: a vicious war of wills between mother and daughter, and a future, at least of this family, that ends in madness and matricide. The world of these characters has collapsed into a dreary room connected to the world beyond the Connemara mountains only by television, an occasional visitor, and infrequent letters.
To Ray, who watches Australian soap operas on television constantly, Ireland has become intolerably boring. Like his brother Pato, he is eager to move to a foreign city, where he can find work and get “more drugs.” As for Maureen and Mag, family ties have disintegrated, giving way to spite, resentment, and hatred. The prevalence of violence, both in language and in action, suggests that these characters live constantly on the edge of explosive reactions to each other, repressed only by circumstances. Their outbursts measure the depth of their emotions, which are almost entirely negative. McDonagh’s vision does not include gaiety, compassion, human warmth, or respect for individual worth. The characters’ sardonic wit is a weapon of spite, void of charm and warmth. Mag is content to control Maureen by deceit and whining, not concerned that Maureen is lonely, love-starved, and likely driven to madness by her mother’s selfish demands.
Critics see in McDonagh’s plays a grim portrait of a community in which individuals have few options and little hope of happiness or escape. These people suffer from a nihilism that sees torture and murder as viable means to resolve conflict, and they are mired in values that provide no purpose, fulfillment, or direction. They do not suffer because they are sinful or murderous; rather, their violence and madness derive from their suffering. They inhabit a universe in which justice is ironic, and they are victims of an environment that, apparently, has been used up, drained of vitality and spirituality. McDonagh suggests that few, like Pato Dooley, manage to escape; those that remain, like Maureen and Ray, go mad or retreat into monotonous mediocrity, symbolized by Australian soap operas and radio broadcasts that are out of touch with the reality of life in Leenane.