Garrett Lombard in The Silver Tassie
(© Stephanie Berger)
Garrett Lombard in The Silver Tassie
(© Stephanie Berger)
As one watches Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie now being presented at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, one will have no difficulty understanding why the work is so rarely staged. This anti-war drama is an extraordinarily ambitious combination of styles and tone, which combines naturalism, expressionism and music hall comedy. Thankfully, director Garry Hynes' astonishing staging for Ireland's Druid Theatre coalesces into a profoundly moving theatrical experience.

Hynes brilliantly tweaks the play's opening, by having a jocular exchange between Sylvester Heegan (Eamon Morrissey) and Simon (John Olohan) take place in front of the curtain rather than in the interior of the Heegan's one-room Dublin apartment as dictated by the script. Audiences eventually see the Heegan home (which production designer Francis O'Connor brings abstractly to life as a room encased by deep red walls). But by having the men jest with one another outside of the realm of realism, theatergoers are prepared for the work's stylistic shifts.

At the play's center is Heegan's son Harry (a genial and touching turn from Garrett Lombard), a popular young man -- and acclaimed soccer player -- who is shipped off to battle and who returns from his time on the French lines during World War II as a cripple. His war wounds ultimately run beyond the physical when he discovers that his girlfriend Jessie (Charlie Murphy) has left him for Barney (Raymond Scannell) -- the young man who saved Harry's life on the battlefield.

It's not only Harry who finds himself cataclysmically changed by the war. His neighbor Teddy (Liam Carney), who, during the first act, shockingly abuses his wife (a delightful Marion O'Dwyer), returns from battle having been blinded. And even the zealously pious Susie (superbly realized by Clare Dunne), cannot escape the ravages of battle, even though she never travels from her homeland. By the play's end, her faith has been stripped completely away.

Taken by themselves, these plot strands might now seem quaint -- or even clichéd -- but O'Casey's dramaturgy makes them all seem remarkably fresh. Sylvester and Simon, for instance, function as a sort of humorous Greek chorus for the piece, providing not only exposition, but also some much-needed laughs, which are made even heartier given Morrissey and Olohan's superb comic timing.

During the play's second act, which unfolds in France on the frontlines (where a huge tank dominates the stage, lit in haunting blues and sickly yellow-greens by designer Davy Cunningham), O'Casey brings the horrors of war to life with both dialogue and songs (composer Elliot Davis has written the original tunes that skew traditional melodies to appropriately jarring effect) that comment on the action.

Music remains a fixture of the piece in the acts that follow, notably in the Dublin hospital where Harry convalesces; an attending physician (an amusing Elliot Harper) makes his rounds toting a cello and woos Susie with a bawdy tune while she tends to her patients, including the wheelchair-bound Harry.

The play concludes, ironically and sadly, on Armistice Day, and it's at this juncture that O'Casey brings the titular "silver tassie" (loving cup), which Harry won at a soccer match before being deployed, symbolically to the fore. It's not a subtle moment, but it's a devastating one that will leave audience shaken well after they've left the theater.