Here’s a question for die-hard theatergoers—like this reviewer: Why when a play is relentlessly depressing do we eagerly look forward to revivals and, more than that, vigorously recommend it to first-timers?
Sean O’Casey’s 1924 Juno and the Paycock is an excellent example of this sort of attraction, certainly in the fine shape the Irish Repertory Company has brought it back again in this O’Casey-designated 30th anniversary season. (Shadow of a Gunman preceded it; The Plough and the Stars follows.) Indeed, the IRT—having presented the classic for the first time in the 1995-96 season and for a second time in the 2013-14 season—is now offering something resembling a revival of a revival.
Directed now by Neil Pepe—on loan from the Atlantic Theater Company where he’s artistic director (IRT co-founder Charlotte Moore directed the previous production), the cast features several actors repeating their 2013-14 performances. Buoyantly welcome again are IRT co-founder Ciarán O’Reilly as ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle, John Keating as Joxer Daly, Ed Malone as Johnny Boyle, Terry Donnelly as Maisie Madigan and James Russell as Charles Bentham.
For those who don’t know O’Casey’s heart-thumping, heart-breaking Juno and the Paycock, the action takes place in 1922 during the Irish Civil War and in the downtrodden Boyle home. While the incendiary conflict rages outside the Boyle tenement and all but breaks down their front door, the harried occupants try as much as they can to make do.
Leading the fight to stay afloat and solvent is gallant working-woman Juno Boyle (Maryann Plunkett). Undermining her every inch of the way is her failure of a husband, ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle, whose honorific is self-designated. An inveterate liar and drinker, Jack is unemployed. Whenever a potential job looms, he develops what he describes as painful leg twinges. He prefers to pal around with fellow drunk and pub crawler Joxer, who, in this reviewer’s estimation, is only one-notch below William Shakespeare’s Falstaff as a fast-talking, loafing shapeshifter.
The other resident Boyles are Johnny, a recluse who’s lost an arm in the War of Independence and is somehow implicated in the death of a friend named Tancred, and Mary (Sarah Street), a good girl having a seemingly hopeful romance with the upright, up-market Charles Bentham. Visitors to the Boyle household include the take-charge Maisie Madigan and, for one short stay, Mrs. Tancred, the grieving mother of Johnny’s one-time, now deceased pal.
During the three acts—two acts here—things temporarily look up for the Boyles, when they are incorrectly informed they’re inheriting money. The promise sends Jack on a borrowing and buying spree that crashes when the legacy evaporates. This leads to irreversible Boyle-family disintegration, compounded by Mary’s loss of Bentham (who’s impregnated her) as well as by an eruption of Johnny’s mysterious former activities.
The short-lived bit of Boyles luck partially relieves the invasive despair. The mood change is further helped along by the roiling humor O’Casey prominently infuses almost to the end. The characters’ idiosyncrasies may be endlessly disturbing, but, not infrequently, they’re bone-ticklingly-funny.
For instance, the speed with which ‘Captain’ Boyle’s legs begin to afflict him when he hears about a potential job reaps repeated giggles. Joxer is a hoot and a holler when, seconds after talking against drinking partner ‘Captain’ Boyle, he sees his pal and sides with him against all comers. A spineless opportunist, Joxer shouldn’t be such a delight, but he is.
O’Casey creates so many of the Juno and the Paycock figures with broad yet subtle strokes of his pen that they’re marvels for actors to take on. The returning players here must have been overjoyed to have another go at them. O’Reilly’s ‘Captain’ Boyle is pot-bellied and woozy from drink. Even when the source of unrestrained loathingm the fake captain is more lovable than seems fair. From Keating’s first entrance as Joxer—tall with untamed curly hair resembling a weed garden—he’s a sight gag. Keating is a wonder at keeping the hateful man an utterly believable delight.
The other principals are just as indelibly etched—with Street an eventually undone Mary, Malone a beaten and unflaggingly cynical Johnny, Donnelly a fuming Maisie Madigan, and Connor, in the one short sequence as Mrs. Tancred, an embodiment of unmitigated sorrow.
For the past few years, Plunkett has been one of Richard Nelson’s estimable performers in The Apple Family Plays and The Gabriel Family Plays. Outstanding then—as all the actors in those beautifully understated works have been—she digs even deeper into O’Casey, giving perhaps her finest performance. Long-suffering and determined in the early scenes, she rivets attention in the final scenes when Juno realizes that the interminable battle she’s waged with her “paycock” (her incorrigible peacock) is ended and she’s lost. Laurels to her on this portrayal of doomed bravery.
For this O’Casey season, Charlie Corcoran has turned the IRT stage and auditorium into a bruised-neighborhood environment. He’s kept the same very humble home for the first two O’Casey plays, possibly thinking it would signal that all impoverished Irish citizens of the explosive period occupy the same unavoidable spiritual space.
It’s often bruited that first-rate writing, which O’Casey’s is, remains indestructible. Not so. Inadequate production can do untold damage to scripts. On the other hand, well-done productions confirm first-rate writing. This Juno and the Paycock hits that high mark.
Juno and the Paycock opened March 19, 2019, at the Irish Repertory Theatre and runs through May 25. Tickets and information: irishrep.org