“Feminist” isn’t likely the first word that comes to mind in considering Sean O’Casey, his progressive views notwithstanding. But a sense of women’s suffering and fortitude in the face of men’s folly could certainly inform his work, as Irish Repertory Theatre is reminding us this season by staging the celebrated playwright’s early “Dublin trilogy” in full.
In Juno and the Paycock, O’Casey’s second play to be produced and the third in the cycle chronologically, the title characters are a long-put-upon middle-aged matron and her strutting wastrel of a husband, respectively played in this superb, searing revival by the magnificent Maryann Plunkett and Irish Rep co-founder and producing director Ciarán O’Reilly. O’Casey’s witty stage directions describe “Captain” Jack Boyle (the peacock of the title, which takes local pronunciation into account) as having cheeks that are “puffed out, as if he were always repressing an almost irrepressible ejaculation.” What Jack cannot contain— as O’Reilly’s sublime, tragi-comic performance makes clear— is his hot air, the sheer blarney that pours forth as, in between jaunts to the pub, he blames a failing pair of legs for his chronic unemployment.
It’s up to Juno Boyle, then, to both bring home the bacon and hold down the fort, a cramped tenement apartment also occupied by their grown children: a daughter, Mary, who also works—though she is taking part in the Postal Strike of 1922 when we meet the Boyles, in the first year of the Irish Civil War—and a son who, like his father, doesn’t. Unlike Jack, though, Johnny has a legitimate handicap, having lost an arm fighting with the Irish Republican Army.
The Boyles’ prospects seem to improve when news arrives that they’ve come into a financial windfall, courtesy of a cousin who has just passed away. A tacky red sofa and matching chair and tablecloth, among other garish touches, materialize in Charlie Corcoran’s suitably shoddy set, which suddenly bursts with aspirational zeal.
But glad tidings and hopeful developments can be deceptive in Juno, with the strife of the Civil War, never far off, providing a sort of enlarged mirror to tensions within the claustrophobic Boyle household. Visitors are a constant and often inauspicious presence, from IRA officers threatening Johnny with calls to duty to Jack’s drinking buddy Joxer Daly, who in John Keating’s vivid performance emerges as a comical but menacing enabler—a demon perched on his pal’s shoulder, oblivious to everything but his own hedonistic impulses.
Even Charles Bentham, Mary’s elegant and respectable suitor, made deftly inscrutable by James Russell, becomes a suspicious figure, feigning modesty while haughtily holding forth on Eastern spirituality. Juno, denied the privilege of time to explore such theories, clings to her own faith like a rock, even—especially—when it is tested most sorely. “We’ll want all the help we can get from God and his Blessed Mother now!” she chides a despondent Mary in one of the play’s later, most wrenching scenes. “Ah, what can God do (against) the stupidity of men!”
Plunkett delivers these lines with an unfussy directness that’s shattering, conveying at once the depths of Juno’s despair and the pragmatic stoicism that sustains her. Though Jack is more than a decade her senior, her bond to him has taken on a maternal quality, though even that frays in the downward spiral that makes Juno‘s second act, under Neil Pepe’s stringent but deeply compassionate direction, both excruciating and mesmerizing.
Pepe’s flawless ensemble also includes Ed Malone, heartbreaking as the desperately embittered Johnny, and the lovely Sarah Street, whose initially frivolous Mary reveals depths of grace and mettle that ultimately distinguish her from both Charles and another suitor, her coworker Jerry Devine—whose earnest, endearing character, in Harry Smith’s nuanced portrait, twists and darkens as the story does.
Úna Clancy has a shorter but equally affecting turn as a grieving mother who ominously interrupts a festive moment in Act Two. By the end of Juno‘s third and final act—its last two scenes punctuated by a harrowing pause that Pepe allows to linger painfully—the party is over for all the Boyles, though we suspect that one or two may endure, however traumatized. But you won’t catch them flaunting their feathers any time soon.