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Theatre in Review: The Plough and the Stars (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Una Clancy, Maryann Plunkett. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The Irish Rep's Sean O'Casey trilogy ends on a note of triumph with Charlotte Moore's staging of this little-seen report from the embattled streets of Dublin. Each of the plays is set during a different flashpoint in the struggle between Ireland and Great Britain. The Irish War of Independence, which unfolded from 1919 to 1921, provides the violent backdrop for The Shadow of a Gunman. Juno and the Paycock takes place during the Irish Civil War, when the revolutionary forces split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which created a free Ireland with the proviso that the northern region remain British -- an agreement that unleashed a river of blood that flows to the current day. The Plough and the Stars is set during the Easter Uprising, a failed revolution that, thanks to the violent response of the British, managed to unite the previously divided Irish against British rule. The plays form a stunning triptych of a Dublin wracked by violence and sectarianism. The Plough and the Stars, in particular, is a polyphonic display of voices -- comic, tragic, wounded, furious -- bearing witness to a city at war with itself.

"It is a glorious thing to see arms in the hands of Irishmen...Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood...There are many things more horrible than bloodshed, and slavery is one of them!" So says an offstage orator, who may be the revolutionary Patrick Pearse, while many of O'Casey's characters converge on a pub in Act II. Such words had a powerful effect in 1916 as the country -- or, at least, part of it -- prepared to go to war against the British Empire. In The Plough and the Stars, however, any romanticism about the glory of revolution withers under O'Casey's unblinking gaze. When the shooting starts, political positions don't matter; death will come indiscriminately, spreading terror and sorrow in its wake.

Providing the spine of the play is the marriage of Jack and Nora Clitheroe, a loving young couple destined to be battle fodder. She desperately tries to keep him out of the conflict, to the point of hiding the news that he has been made an officer in the Irish Citizen Army; the effort fails, with disastrous results. Swirling around them is a universe of characters gifted with poets' tongues. Fluther Good, a boozy, garrulous carpenter, has an opinion about everything. ("I think we ought to have as great a regard for religion as we can, so as to keep it out of as many things as possible.") The cold-eyed Mrs. Gogan says of Nora, who likes her clothes, "She dhresses herself to keep him with her, but it's no use -- afther a month or two, th' wondher of a woman wears off." (O'Casey's dialogue is written to reflect the Dublin accent.) Peter Flynn, Nora's uncle, may be a laborer, but he affects military wear that would look more suitable on Admiral Nelson. ("A funny-lookin' little man...like somethin' you'd pick off a Christmas tree," opines Mrs. Gogan.) Rosie, a prostitute, laments the depressing effect on business of armed revolt, noting, "They're all thinkin' of higher things than a girl's garthers." The Young Covey, Jack's cousin and another sort of revolutionary, lashes out at the use of the Irish Citizen Army flag, arguing, "What does th' design of th' field plough, bearin' on it th' stars of th' heavenly plough, mean, if it's not Communism? It's a flag that should only be used when we're buildin' th' barricades to fight for a Workers' Republic!"

It's a tale of dissolution and dispersal, the birth of a nation recorded in shattered hopes and lives destroyed. The action begins in the Clitheroes' apartment, then shifts to the pub and, later, the streets, at which point gunfire is heard everywhere and general looting breaks out. The finale takes place in an attic where many of the characters hole up -- and which proves to be no safe haven. Moore orchestrates the descent into chaos with brio, aided by a disciplined cast, several of whom play prominent roles in the other two plays of the trilogy. Clare O'Malley and Adam Petherbridge capture the bond between Nora and Jack, and the conflict that tears it apart. O'Malley is especially heart-wrenching as the pregnant Nora takes to the streets in a hopeless attempt at retrieving Jack, delivering this withering verdict on him and his fellow soldiers: "I saw fear glowin' in all their eyes...An' some o' them laughed at me, but th' laugh was a frightened one ... An' some o' them shouted at me, but th' shout had in it th' shiver o' fear ... I tell you they were afraid, afraid, afraid!"

Indelible impressions are also made by Terry Donnelly as a lady of quality caught in the crossfire; John Keating and Ed Malone as Jack's fellow soldiers, the latter of whom comes to a grisly end; Meg Hennessey as Mollser, Mrs. Gogan's daughter, wasting away with consumption; Robert Langdon Lloyd as Peter, clinging to his dignity in the middle of chaos ("I hear the people livin' on th' quays had to crawl on their bellies to Mass with th' bullets that were flyin' around from Boland's Mills"); James Russell as The Young Covey, forever pressing on the unwary a copy of Jenersky's Thesis on the Origin, Development, an' Consolidation of the Evolutionary Idea of the Proletariat; and Sarah Street as the enterprising Rosie. If Una Clancy comes on a little too strong and fast-talking at first as Mrs. Gogan, her characterization is informed by an impressive malice.

Standing out even in this gifted company is Maryann Plunkett as Bessie Burgess, a Protestant matron who remains insistently pro-British, if only to honor the son who died in the trenches of World War I. Beginning as a world-class scold, she, too, is caught up in the action, ultimately providing tender care for the damaged and ending up a figure of tragedy. The actress, outfitted with a knack for fiery denunciations and a look in her eyes that bespeaks the terrible things she has seen, seems to grow in stature from scene to scene.

This is the most expansive play in the trilogy, and it has a design to match. Charlie Corcoran's unit set, depicting a tenement parlor, is revealed to have hidden depths; a turntable takes us to the other locations. (Corcoran's immersive design, which turns the Irish Rep's auditorium into a shabby Dublin street, complete with laundry hanging overhead, is extremely effective.) Michael Gottlieb's lighting, including the candlelit attic, is typically first-rate. The costumes, by Linda Fisher and David Toser, have the look and feel of authentically worn-out everyday period wear. The sound design, by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, puts the audience in the middle of the action in ways that are sometimes terrifying.

The Irish Rep has done something grand in presenting all three plays, which combine sharply etched characters and gorgeous dialogue in a mural of civil collapse that seems eerily mirrored in the daily news of today. The streets of Damascus and Caracas are, sadly, like those of O'Casey's Dublin. Or see these plays and then check out The Ferryman on Broadway to see how, decades later, religious conflict continued to poison Northern Ireland, a conflict that still awaits a definitive resolution. This stunning revival thrills even as its observations continue to prove heartbreakingly relevant. --David Barbour


(15 May 2019)

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