Watching “Captain” Jack Boyle’s pronouncement regarding Ireland’s civil strife -- “We’ve got nothin’ to do with these things, one way or t’other. That’s the Government’s business, an’ let them do what we’re payin’ them for doin’” -- about 24 hours after a more than two-week government shutdown lent a little extra resonance to the Irish Repertory Theatre's production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. The personal is always the political in O’Casey’s work, and Juno, part of his acclaimed Dublin Trilogy, skillfully interweaves the two as it follows the Boyle family’s fortunes’ (imagined) rise and fall in a 1922 Dublin tenement.
Shades of brown dominate the peeling walls of James Noone’s set, which the cast fills admirably. The titular characters, the goddess of the homefront (J. Smith-Cameron) and her strutting husband (Ciarán O’Reilly), turn in strong, nuanced performances, as does John Keating, coming off a similar and similarly well-executed role in the Irish Rep’s staging of The Weir, as the “daarlin’” Joxer Daly.As played by O’Reilly and Smith-Cameron, the work-averse Captain Boyle and his long-suffering Juno enact a believable marriage together, with moments that let the audience see the intimacy and history underneath the domestic conflict, a conflict that is mirrored by the civil war going on in the streets. James Russell invests Charlie Bentham with an engaging earnestness that, together with Mary Mallen’s subtle performance as Mary Boyle, makes it understandable why the Boyles’ daughter would both see Bentham as her ticket out of the Dublin slums and genuinely have feelings for him. As a result, Mary’s attachment to him does not come across as misguided and pathetic, as it could be staged, and so makes her final abandonment all the more heartbreaking.
The red lighting that ends the acts prefigures another abandonment. When the light of Johnny (Ed Malone)’s red votive goes out, it is only a matter of time until his former comrades arrive to enact their version of justice. Johnny brings the Civil War most directly into the Boyles’ domestic space and thus onto the stage, first as a shell-shocked soldier with constant night terrors and then as he is dragged off to execution. It can be argued that Johnny is a bit underwritten, with O’Casey leaning heavily on Johnny’s war experience to fill in his character. Malone’s take on Johnny renders his occasional PTSD-inspired outbursts loud and intense, lending tension to his constant presence in the background. In fact, aside from a little slapstick in a few of the moments with Joxer, this production admirably maintains an undercurrent of tension, never venturing into possibilities of farce temptingly held out by a play with two self-inflated drunks as protagonists. Keating as Joxer makes clear the schadenfreude that partly anchors the chummy surface of the relationship between himself and the Captain. He relishes the repossession of Boyle’s suit, and his true disdain surfaces again when he steals Boyle’s last coin, leaving Boyle truly alone. Joxer and Boyle’s drunkenness in this final scene is especially unsentimental and far from comic. Prefaced by Juno’s last look around an almost bare stage, when they enter, they are pathetic, barely functioning, regulars that one might encounter in some of New York’s seedier dive bars. These final moments are fitting for a play in which every repetition of an elements renders it darker than previously.
So as to avoid ourselves ending in darkness, it should be mentioned that David O’Hara is excellent as Jerry Devine, especially his nearly touching the disgraced Mary at the end, appropriately for a character whose deflowering and destroyed family mirrors the rending apart of Ireland itself. Fiana Toibin, too, is excellent, and makes the most of Mrs. Tancred’s brief appearance. Discounting a couple of spotty accents here and there, this is an impressive production of one of the classic interrogations of twentieth-century Ireland’s “”state of chassis.” - C J Thom
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.