Women Hold the Home Together as Men Let It Fall Apart in Juno and the Paycock
The play runs as part of Irish Repertory Theatre's Sean O'Casey season.
"The whole worl's in a state o' chassis!" says the drunken, jobless patriarch of the Boyle family in Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, now running at Irish Repertory Theatre. "Captain" Jack Boyle's mangling of the word "chaos" is one of the linguistic errors that give the play its sitcom-style humor as well as its bleak outlook on life in Dublin during the wartime years of the early 20th century. Juno, one of O'Casey's more popular plays, is the second in his Dublin trilogy, which Irish Rep is staging as part of its Sean O'Casey season. Director Neil Pepe has followed up the first, The Shadow of a Gunman, with this entertaining production. Performed by a dynamic cast led by Ciarán O'Reilly and Maryann Plunkett, Pepe's take feels fresh and relevant while remaining faithful to O'Casey's nearly 100-year-old play.
The story takes place in Dublin during the 1922 Irish Civil War. Juno Boyle (marvelously played by Plunkett with a kind of agitated fatigue) has to hold a job and keep the household together on a shoestring budget while her do-nothing boozer of a husband, Jack (a bumblingly funny O'Reilly), haunts local pubs with his good-for-nothing drinking buddy, Joxer Daly (John Keating sporting a Cosmo Kramer coif). As if that weren't enough for Juno to bear, daughter Mary (a charmingly naive Sarah Street), who is on strike from her job, and son Johnny (a menacingly plaintive Ed Malone), who had an arm blown off in the Irish War of Independence, never hesitate to air their petty grievances.
One day, however, the family's prayers seem to be answered when news arrives that a recently deceased relative has willed Jack a sizable sum. Problem is, Juno's strutting "paycock" (peacock) of a husband begins spending the money before he has it in hand, potentially leaving the family in worse shape than before.
It's easy to draw comparisons between Juno and the Paycock and working-class TV sitcoms like The Honeymooners. O'Reilly and Keating make a likable if ultimately pathetic Ralph Kramden-Ed Norton duo, and Plunkett resembles Ralph's wife, Alice, though certainly a more beleaguered version. Pepe does a marvelous job drawing out the play's other comical aspects in delightful moments such as when Juno nonchalantly slams a door in Joxer's drunken, platitude-spouting face. At two hours and 15 minutes, this Juno shows Casey's talent for mining the comedy of married couples, along with that of several stock characters like the chatty, nostalgic neighbor Maisie Madigan (Terry Donnelly) and the ticked-off tailor Needle Nugent (Robert Langdon Lloyd).
Funny as the play is, we're never allowed to forget that its events are nestled into war-torn Dublin, and that the financial struggles of the Boyles put them closer to ruin than the Kramdens ever were. Pepe gives the play a thrilling jolt of realism in a handful of tense, shouty scenes between Juno and her son and husband that take place offstage in an inner room, making us feel as though we're listening to real-life arguments of the family next door. It's a brave directorial choice, but the cast carries it out brilliantly.
Charlie Corcoran's impressively detailed set, which runs from the stage into the audience space, also gives the production a realistic punch (look up and you'll see shirts and stockings hanging from a clothesline overhead). Even after Jack begins spending lavishly on new furniture, the Boyle home still looks bedraggled and depressed. Linda Fisher and David Toser's drab-colored costumes for the Boyles mirror the tenement's dinginess and contrast the Boyles' situation with that of Mary's sharply tailored suitor, the school teacher Charles Bentham (a poised James Russell). Michael Gottlieb gives the later scenes a dire touch with his less realistic, more atmospheric lighting, which shows the family's situation slipping from light and hope into darkness and despair.
Juno and the Paycock focuses less on the violence of war than Shadow of a Gunman, and more on the human drama that happens indoors while the world falls into chaos outside. Amid the humor, O'Casey's serious commentary on people like Jack and Joxer is not lost. While much that happens in the world is well out of our control, we sometimes invite a fair amount of "chassis" into our lives ourselves.