By Bob Shuman

Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock is a hard and beautiful play, and Neil Pepe’s staging, at Irish Rep, is lovely, as one of its characters, Joxer (a Faginlike wingman, played by John Keating) might say. The production is a soft interpretation, though, right for an American moment, where long-term unemployment is accompanied by cell phones, flat screen TVs, and food stamps—not a fierce enough reflection on the devastation with which the playwright (O’Casey lived from 1880 to 1964) ruins his characters. 

The clashing colors and pristine, hanging laundry of Charlie Corcoran’s tenement setting, for the tragi-comedy, are reminders of gauche social class, but they don’t go far enough to artistically render the economic collapse of the Irish at the beginning of the twentieth century. Maybe producers and designers, who would never allow urine fumes to waft through the audience, as did a recent French production of Ionesco Suite at BAM, believe it’s too disturbing to present much beyond the bad taste of an underclass; but, nevertheless, the creators are manipulating history mendaciously.  A 1989 Juno and the Paycock, from the Gate Theatre, in Ireland, took a much harsher tack.  Frank Rich described the set in the following, and the audience could see why the characters would borrow to claw their way out:  “The tenement in O’Casey’s play belongs to the Boyle family of Dublin, during the Civil War days of 1922. The home’s crumbling walls are caked with slime, as if sewage had been flushed through the living room. The windowpanes, cracked and sooty, are framed by the cobweb remains of lace curtains, while the meager furniture has long since spilled its guts.” 

Pepe dilutes or Americanizes his Juno and the Paycock (the drama is being performed as part of its important Sean O’Casey Season, which runs until May 25) by treating the work as if it is a middle-class play, as opposed to a working-class one, or more directly, as one about abject poverty.  As ‘Captain’ Jack, the “paycock,” the loafer, the idler on the dole, Ciaran O’Reilly, with hand in his vest pocket, leaning back on his heels, appears too stolid in the role, perhaps, out of Ibsen; he’s not a bluffer or con or strutter, from which he gets his nickname.  The Paycock actually seems akin to Alfred P. Doolittle in Pygmalion–O’Casey and Shaw became friends—who is horrified at having been roped into joining the bourgeoisie. Juno (Maryann Plunkett) is a character who doesn’t make sense in the context of today’s society—if she was ever anything other than an ideal.  Feminism has made it clear that women are not saints or martyrs—she and her daughter (Sarah Street) can not even be said to be representative personae of Ireland anymore, after divorce and pro-choice legalization. These are strong characters (and characterizations) to be booed in the public square.

Fine work also comes from the Boyle’s severely injured son (Ed Malone)–Juno and the Paycock is a war play, written by a top-tier playwright, both facts often overshadowed. The suitors of Mrs. Boyle’s daughter create clear, tiny portraits of cowardice (James Russell and Harry Smith) and Terry Donnelly works to give a glimpse of art as it emerges from the school of hard knocks. Perhaps one of the finest roles in the play is that of a woman who loses her son to the revolutionary movement.  Hers carries an aching monologue, here performed, unsentimentalized, out of earth and sorrow, by Una Clancy.  Even in a production that normalizes despair, O’Casey’s keening shrouds the eyes in mist.

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights Reserved.

Production photos: Carol Rosegg

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