Last night, I saw Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock at Irish Repertory Theatre. It's part of a trio of O'Casey plays the company is putting on through May. Right now, just Juno is running, but all three will be playing in rep May 11-25.
I'd already seen Irish Rep's production of The Shadow of a Gunman, which stars Meg Hennessy and James Russell in a story about the Irish War of Independence. Both Hennessy and Russell do excellent jobs in a play that starts out as a witty comedy and turns devastatingly tragic.
Juno and the Paycock similarly has tonal shifts, but rather than simply beginning as a comedy and turning into a tragedy, it deftly weaves together different dramatic strands into a tapestry that can be stunning in its beauty. The Shadow of a Gunman was O'Casey's first play to be professionally produced, so it's only natural that he should have learned a thing or two for his second big play.
Instead of experiencing a sophomore slump, O'Casey had a hit with Juno and the Paycock, which like The Shadow of a Gunman opened at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The Abbey had been involved with a number of controversial plays, including William Butler Yeats' Cathleen Ni Houlihan, John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, and George Bernard Shaw's The Showing-Up of Blanco Posnet. What they didn't have was financial success.
All that changed when they discovered O'Casey. The Abbey had rejected O'Casey's play The Frost in the Flower but encouraged him to keep writing. When he sent them The Shadow of a Gunman, they knew they had something special. The play's success was exceeded, however, by Juno and the Paycock. That play opened in 1924, a year after a ceasefire had ended the Irish Civil War that had followed the nation's independence. O'Casey dealt explicitly with the Civil War in his play, but allowed audiences to sympathize with all those who had died, which was perhaps a key to its popularity.
Militants who rejected the peace with Britain, who wanted to keep fighting until Ireland was out of the Commonwealth and the counties in Northern Ireland joined the Republic, were known as Diehards. They continued to wage war against the new national government just as they had against the British. Meanwhile, those who sided with the newly independent Irish Free State were known as Staters, and both sides were subject to assassination. In O'Casey's play, Juno Boyle fails to sympathize with a neighbor when her son is killed for being a Diehard, but then her own son is taken by the Diehards for being a Stater.
"Ah, why didn't I remember that then he wasn't a Diehard or a Stater, but only a poor dead son!" she says toward the end of the play. "Sacred Heart o' Jesus, take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh! Take away this murdherin' hate, an' give us Thine own eternal love!" That must have resonated after the close of the Irish Civil War, just as it resonates today in the shadow of so much war and death.
Maryann Plunkett does an exceptional job as Juno in what is her Irish Rep debut (though she has a long list of Broadway and off-Broadway credits). Director Neil Pepe, best known for being the Artistic Director of the Atlantic Theater Company, helms the production, and Irish Rep regular Ciarán O'Reilly plays Captain Jack Boyle, who struts around like a "paycock" in the play.
Special kudos go to scenic designer Charlie Corcoran, who has managed to turn the interior of the theatre at Irish Rep into a set of early-20th-century tenements that can be used for all three O'Casey plays the company is doing. The third play, The Plough and the Stars, will begin performances April 20th.