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Juno and the Paycock
Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh! -- Juno
The Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Juno and the Paycock is a triumph of good acting, innovative and adaptive directing and the enduring power of Sean O'Casey's 1924 play in which the disintegration of a poor family echoes the political unrest in 1920s Dublin. While these virtues contribute in equal measure to the pleasures of this revival, I'll detail them in the order listed.
Acting excellence describes the entire cast. Even the cameo roles are finely polished gems. But it is Dearbhla Molloy and Jim Norton who dominate as the title characters,
Captain Jack Boyle's penchant for whiskey and aversion to work, could easily be a caricature. However, as played by Norton, the strutting peacock is as pathetic as he is contemptible. He's also funny, but not Irish cliche funny. Even the scenes with his drinking pal, Joxer Daly (a gleefully slimy Thomas Jay Ryan) are finely shaded to show the mean streak beneath the bluster. This is marvelously illustrated in an almost silent scene during which Boyle, after high-handedly refusing to touch the breakfast Juno dished up for him along with a rant about his work avoidance, reheats the rejected food as soon as she leaves the house. Knowing she's been carefully saving lard in a jar, he deliberately dips into this reserve. When Joxer enters, he invites him to sit down but gives him bread and drippings and only grudgingly forks over a few morsels of the sausage. That staged satirical cartoon effectively nails the man for us.
Ms. Molloy's Juno is a woman whose feelings are firmly corseted. As the one grounded member of the Boyle family she is too busy holding the crumbling family together to give in to her own despair. Her son Johnny (played with nervous intensity by Jason Butler Harner) is a fragile, wrecked young man, maimed physically and mentally by his part in the civil war. Her daughter Mary (Gretchen Cleevely beautifully capturing her youthful spirit and the agony of her dashed dreams), is participating in a strike at the factory where she works which exacerbates the family's money problems. The sudden inheritance and its immediate benefits -- a new suitor for Mary, loans for furniture and new clothes to transform a house in shambles into a home -- is only a temporary respite from the Boyles' (and the political situation's) dark destiny. Juno must once again be a rock. And so she is. When the inheritance has turned out to be a pipedream and Mary weeps for the baby who'll have no father, Juno bravely and movingly counters with "but it will have two mothers!" But in the end even this human fortress collapses. Coming after two hours of emotional restraint her cry to turn "hearts of stone into hearts of flesh" makes for a shattering ending and a memorable performance.
John Crowley's direction firmly focuses the play as a devastating familial story within the larger context of political strife. His innovative hand is most evident in the way he's made an asset out of the stage which was built for a movie screen. The Boyle's living room may not look like a low-ceilinged tenement flat, but set designer Rae Smith's peeling walls, blackened ceilings and depressingly frayed furnishings create something far more evocative -- a home turned into a vast wasteland by war as well as poverty. To further connect the familial and national strife, Crowley has brilliantly linked the theater to its movie house roots by prefacing each act with documentary film images from 1920s Irish history projected onto a scrim curtain.
The only misstep in Crowley's otherwise inspired direction is the party scene which somehow comes off as an underpopulated version of the recently musicalized The Dead (see link). The mother and daughter's singing, while sweet, only delays the event that's this scene's reason for being -- the intrusion of the funeral party which not only casts a shadow over the proceedings but portends the transience of the turnaround in the family's fortunes and standing with friends and tradesmen.
O'Casey's language is, of course, timeless. What better way to sum up the state of the world than Jack's repeated pronouncement that the world's in "a terrible state of chassis (chaos)"? With the Mideast and other regions of the world we live in continuing to be in chaos, the conflict between the "Free Staters" and the radical "Die-hard" gives O'Casey's seventy-four year old play a chilling relevancy.
The Shadow of a Gunman the O'Casey play that preceded Juno and the Paycock.
James Joyce's The Dead