The Irish Rep is a wonderful cultural resource in a number of registers: it embraces and warmly presents plays, musicals, and music from the old and traditional to the new, emerging, and experimental. And it explores all these avenues well.
But the theater is at the height of its powers when it takes on one of the pillars of the Irish theater tradition—a Friel, a Shaw, even the Irish-American Eugene O’Neill. These playwrights and others like them give the Irish Rep the opportunity to dive eagerly, expertly, and beautifully into the plays that make Irish theater among the most important world theater traditions. Certainly Sean O’Casey lies near the center of the Irish theater tradition and perhaps no play encapsulates the concerns of modern Irish drama more effectively than Juno and the Paycock.
O’Casey’s 1924 play marries biting political critique with charming humor as it censures its characters unromantically while also treating them with great compassion and understanding. The play warms our hearts as it breaks them, and in this paradox it captures—or perhaps defines—the essence of Irish drama.
When a place like the Irish Rep thus takes up a play like this we are right to expect brilliance. And this production delivers fully on that expectation. The theater’s artistic director Charlotte Moore and producing director Ciaran O’Reilly join forces—the former directing the latter starring—to breathe vivid life into Juno. The result is a powerful production full of vigor, immediacy, and deep human complexity.
Juno and the Paycock is the second play in O’Casey’s celebrated “Dublin Trilogy.” Preceded by The Plough and the Stars and followed by The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno joins the other two plays in examining the personal and domestic repercussions of the Irish civil war. In each of the trilogy’s plays, O’Casey for the most part relegates the tumult and discord in the streets to the peripheral. Violence exists in the wings, while the stage is a space for exploring the lives of people existing in and around such violence.
The focus of Juno, set in 1922, is the family of “Captain” Jack Boyle (O’Reilly), his wife Juno (J. Smith-Cameron), and their children Johnny (Ed Malone) and Mary (Mary Mallen). Johnny has lost an arm and earned a shattered hip while fighting for the Irish Republican cause; Mary is participating in a trade union strike in solidarity with a fellow worker who was fired; the Captain is unemployed, perpetually drunk, and more avidly searching for any excuse to avoid work than for a job opening; and to Juno is left the task of holding the family together by its tattered threads.
Despite Juno’s efforts, there is little sign that the Captain will forego the company of his drinking buddy Joxer Daily (John Keating) in favor of any job prospects or that the family will escape its poverty-ridden squalor of their Dublin tenement: that is unless it is tossed out for unpaid rent.
That all changes with the arrival of the wealthy and honorable Mr. Bentham, who brings the family news that a cousin of the Captain has died and bequeathed him a life-changing sum of money. In a moment the family’s troubles seem to evaporate—the Captain need not look for a job and Juno need not worry about it.
All those worries are replaced by fancy furniture and compounding debt as the inheritance is delayed more and more, as the result we might expect from the beginning comes more into focus. As the play progresses, the family’s troubles that seemed to evaporate so quickly gradually reappear and steadily grow until the “chassis”—the Captain’s frequent malapropism for “crisis”—that seemed to engulf the world outside the family’s confines finally and unmistakably enters into the domestic realm.
Helmed with a steady hand by Moore, this Juno succeeds to its fullest on the strength of an impeccable cast embracing and enlivening a masterful script. Captain Jack Boyle is among the greatest characters in Irish theater, and O’Reilly embodies the role enthusiastically, allowing us at once to laugh joyously at the lies he spins, to be critical of his negligence, and also to feel compassion for his plight of poverty and oppression. A powerful Captain demands an equally strong Juno, and the production has certainly got that in J. Smith-Cameron, who shows us a Juno unwavering in her commitment to family. Placed in the unenviable position of matriarch to a tattered family with a drunken patriarch, Juno must assume all the strength forfeited by her husband. Smith-Cameron shows us a strong and proud Juno while also revealing the cracks of basic human weakness. Juno is forced to bear a too-heavy load, and Smith-Cameron seems always aware that the success of Juno’s fortitude comes only as a result of great struggle.
The two leads power this production, but there are no soft spots to be found anywhere in the cast. Supporting roles like Malone’s Johnny and Mallen’s Mary offer enlightening views of the various troubles facing the Boyle family. Particularly wonderful in a supporting role is Keating as the conniving drunkard Joxer Daily, slinking around the stage in his selfish quest for the next drink or coin.
O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy is full of unabashed political critique situated in an unromantic examination of the domestic. His work engages large-scale themes within the small scales of family and home. It is fitting then that this towering monument of world drama should get such a powerful staging in the small Chelsea theater of the Irish Rep. Moore’s production attunes itself deftly to the complicated dynamics of the Boyle family within the tumultuous political environment of the Irish civil war, and produces as a result an insightful and compassionate examination of these deeply troubled, deeply flawed, and fully human characters.