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Theatre in Review: Juno and the Paycock (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Sarah Street, Ed Malone, Maryann Plunkett. Photo: Carol Rosegg

In Sean O'Casey's classic work, comedy and tragedy -- like the characters -- are forced to occupy close quarters; after a while, it becomes almost impossible to tell them apart. Gifted with an unfailingly accurate eye for the life of early-twentieth-century Dublin and a deep-dyed sympathy for the working-class folk who scratched out their meager livings there, he assembles a tenement house filled with unforgettable characters and sets them to fighting, carousing, and carrying on, cherishing their hopes and reveling in their foolishness until the moment when it all comes crashing down. It is a work both delicate in its structure and brutal in its implications, a heartbreaking comedy set against a bitter background of sectarian violence, a play that seems to contain an entire tumultuous world. Only thoroughly skilled theatre companies need apply, and the Irish Rep ensemble, under the direction of Neil Pepe, captures the play's quicksilver shifts from raucous hilarity to stunned resignation.

The title characters are "Captain" Jack Boyle, a professional boozer and layabout afflicted with leg pains that start shooting anytime he gets too near to a job offer. "The whole world's in a state o' chassis!" he is fond of saying - not that he has any contribution to make beyond the lifting of another pint. Juno is his long-suffering wife, who, in addition to earning a living to keep her tiny, undernourished household together, has to juggle her worthless spouse; Mary, her spirited daughter, who wants something more than a sensible marriage; and her son, Johnny, left partially crippled and missing an arm in the fight for independence. As Jack, CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly is the production's very own imp of the perverse, a shameless old hedonist, plump and fitted with a set of white Fuller brushes around his chin, making little dance steps in the direction of the nearest bottle and gassing on about his thoroughly made-up career as a seaman, expounding on the evils of the clergy, and swearing on the "holy book" that he hasn't touched a drop in weeks. (In fact, he has just emerged from a pub where he has been conducting a lengthy assault on his liver.) The actor has an ideal mate and sparring partner in the Juno of Maryann Plunkett, her face congealed into a perpetual mask of quiet fear as she bustles about, seemingly in several directions at once, while plagued by a dearth of money and shouldering a list of crushing responsibilities. The sight of the actress, petite and round, her hair pushed back in a confused retreat from her scalp, her eyes scanning the room worriedly in search of a solution to the latest crisis, is deeply eloquent: It's a vivid portrait of a woman whose every breath is devoted to propping up her troubled, feckless clan. The principal destabilizing element in the Boyles' life is Joxer Daly, Jack's partner in crime, and, as portrayed by the fine, underappreciated John Keating, he is a feral, havoc-wreaking creature. As tall and thin as a flagpole, with protuberant eyes, a nose snatched from a kestrel hawk, and hair that looks like a loose collection of telegraph wires, he enters a room by leaning in and pronouncing something -- be it animal, vegetable, or mineral -- as "darlin'," in a voice not unlike a jackhammer tearing up a sidewalk. Thanks to these three vivid performances, the troubled triangle of sorts on which O'Casey's play is founded is complete.

As is often true of O'Casey's plays, very little seems to happen, but the author knows what he is about: He introduces a seeming deus ex machina in the form of an unexpected legacy from a distant relative, promising enough money to put Jack, Juno, and their children on a solid foundation at last. This revelation cues a riot of celebration, as well as a semi-makeover of the Boyle home, thanks to a new set of furniture. Even at the most exuberant moments, however, there are hints of darker troubles, especially when Johnny is suspected of betraying a neighbor boy -- a member of the Diehards, who rejected the independence treaty that split Ireland in two -- to the British. The playwright lets his characters loose, allowing them to run riot, before pulling their hopes away, with consequences that are especially devastating to the younger generation. One of the most remarkable things about Pepe's production is how it captures the way in which hilarity tumbles headlong into heartbreak, a vision of lives destroyed by cupidity and circumstance.

In addition to the powerful trio of personalities at the play's heart, many members of the supporting cast deliver colorful and incisive performances that capture the heartbeat of working-class lives informed by struggle and disappointment. Terry Donnelly is superb as Maisie, a garrulous, gossipy, and thoroughly grand neighbor lady, overly made up to compensate for an obvious state of decline, and not above a bit of larceny after Jack welshes on a small loan. Tall, jug-eared Ed Malone, his eyes alive with fear as he hobbles about the room, renders Johnny's anxiety and resentment in full measure. James Russell, impeccably fitted out down to his walking stick as Bentham, the schoolteacher with pretensions who becomes the unwitting author of the family's ruin, passes through a family gathering like a minor royal studying the natives of a remote country. Sarah Street is deeply touching as Mary, who drops her guard in matters of the heart and is stuck with the consequences, unsentimentally refusing a rushed marriage to a man she doesn't love. Harry Smith has a nice bit as her ex-suitor, who, almost masochistically, tries to win her back - until he learns the truth of her condition, his ardor cooled in a matter of seconds.. The unit set that Charlie Corcoran has designed for the Irish Rep's O'Casey season -- the company is also presenting The Shadow of a Gunman and The Plough and the Stars - is a hair-raising depiction of squalor, from the gray, ravaged walls to the tattered fabrics and holy pictures on the wall. Michael Gottlieb's lighting, as always, gives each stage picture an extra bit of crispness and definition. Each of the costumes, by Linda Fisher and David Toser, is a character study in itself, from Bentham's too-carefully put together outfits to Joxer's hole-filled rags, each of which looks to be in urgent need of delousing. The sound design, by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, powerfully evokes the funeral procession passing by the house even as the Boyles and their friends are making merry; it also delivers Rumery's contemplative, melancholy original music. Two-thirds of the way through, the Irish Rep's O'Casey cycle is looking more and more like one of the season's major events. Next up is The Plough and the Stars, which, like the others, has been little-seen in New York in recent years. This fine company is doing us all a favor in providing a reminder of O'Casey's central role in twentieth-century Irish literature. His works, rooted so deeply in another time and place, continue to speak directly to us today. -- David Barbour

(12 April 2019)

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