Friday, January 24, 2014

Theater Review: O'Casey’s ‘Juno and the Paycock,’ at the Irish Repertory Theatre



“When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees: maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious,” Edna O’Brien has written. This observation by the Irish woman of letters stems largely from her experience in post-independence County Clare in the rural west, but it applies just as strongly, perhaps even more so, in Dublin a few decades before, as the land was wracked first by rebellion, then by civil war.

The plight of women in the city’s poorest, strife-torn tenements found an unusually sympathetic chronicler in Sean O’Casey, a man who cut so constantly against the grain of his society as a Protestant Socialist in increasingly Catholic nationalist Ireland that critic-novelist Thomas Flanagan called him "the quintessential Irishman who is always 'agin' whatever movement he is a part of." 

The playwright’s mix of comedy and tragedy, along with his proletarian and antiwar sympathies, are what usually get emphasized in productions of Juno and the Paycock. But many audience members will find many protofeminist notes sounded in the production from New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre that will close on Sunday.

Juno and the Paycock is one third of a trilogy of O’Casey’s dramedies, originally staged in 1924 by the Abbey Theatre. In the play, losses occur as much in the home as on the war-torn streets of the time, as, in fratricidal warfare, the Irish soldiers who had once battled Britain for independence now turned on each other in a civil war resulting from a treaty that gave greater self-government but not a complete break from Britain. (I discussed previously the other two plays in this group: The Shadow of a Gunman and The Plough and the Stars.)  Generally considered the finest of the three, it also formed the basis for the Marc Blitzstein opera Juno.

The Irish Repertory does not have the technical resources of the Roundabout Theatre Co., which staged it in a fall 2001 production that I attended, starring Derbhla Molloy and Jim Norton in the eponymous roles. But that does not work to the disadvantage of the play; in fact, it heightens the audience’s sense of the physical and emotional claustrophobia afflicting the tenement residents of the play.

“Juno,” the nickname of middle-aged wife and mother June Boyle, conjures up an ancient goddess, in marked contrast to her actual position as a beleaguered Dublin housewife trying desperately to keep her family intact. The major source of her problems is her husband, “Captain” Jack Boyle (played wonderfully by the Irish Repertory’s co-founder, Ciaran O’Reilly), who is not merely improvident but downright parasitical in dealing with his wife. Daughter Mary (played by Mary Mallen) has, as a result of her reading, taken up the cause of labor, which only ends up getting her fired from her job. Most worrisome of all might be son Johnny, a onetime quartermaster in the Irish Republican Army, who has been left with nothing for his service but an amputated arm, a limp and screams while asleep.

Into the Boyles’ darkened, dingy lives come improbable rays of sunshine. A schoolteacher, a new beau of Mary’s, not only offers her the possibility of a like-minded spirit but the entire family the chance to escape their poverty via a will of a relative of Jack’s that he has drawn. But by the final curtain, Juno will have to summon even greater reserves of courage and dignity, as triple catastrophe descends on the Boyles.

“The whole world is in a terrible state o’ chassis!” Jack moans—but he, like virtually all the men in the play, is at a loss over what to do about it. Whenever he hears of the chance of a job, he suddenly develops an incapacitating malady. Even the best male in the play, a well-meaning former boyfriend of Mary’s, cannot surmount traditional contemporary notions of feminine virtue.

Under the expert direction of Charlotte Moore, the cast strike the right notes in balancing the tragedy that is never far from these tenement-trapped characters and the humor that relieves it. The great majority of the cast matches up quite well, physically, as described by the playwright himself, particularly John Keating as Jack’s fair-weather drinking buddy “Joxer” Daly, embodying to the life the character’s “spare…loosely built” frame and “cunning twinkle.”

But the powerful centerpiece of this production is J. Smith-Cameron as Juno. The actress might be most familiar to the general public for her role as Melinda Mickens in the cable series True Blood, but she’s also an accomplished stage veteran with two Obie Awards to her credit. Here, she must modulate from reproof to rejoicing to resignation as Juno, bringing equal authority to moments of sorrow as much as to one of the devastating one-liners she launches at her no-good spouse (“You’d do far more work with a knife an’ fork than you’ll ever do with a shovel!”). This show was the veteran actress's debut with the Irish Repertory, and I fervently hope that she will appear again, and soon.

Those of Irish descent, all too familiar with their country’s centuries of woe, will identify the most with the characters here. But O’Casey’s themes are universal, particularly in his piercing cry against nationalist violence. “Good God, haven’t I done enough for Ireland?” young, maimed Johnny cries out when paid a visit by a sinister “Irregular Mobilizer” in the Irish Republican Army.  “Boyle,” the man tells him sternly, “no man can do enough for Ireland!” Substitute “Russia,” “China,” “Cuba,” “Iran,” and virtually any other country marked by revolutionary chaos in the 90 years since this play’s premiere, and virtually any citizen of that country would shudder in recognition.The wonder is not a nation came into being in the Emerald Isle after so much suffering, but that, unlike the other countries I named, it continued as a stable (albeit economically stagnant) republic ever since then.

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