Six years ago, TimeLine Theatre had a hit with Fiorello!, the neglected 1959 musical about New York City's Depression-era mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Now director Nick Bowling and music director Doug Peck, who shepherded that show to success, have unearthed another rarity from 1959: Juno, by playwright Joseph Stein and composer-lyricist Marc Blitzstein, a faithful, straightforward musical adaptation of Irish playwright Sean O'Casey's 1924 tragicomedy Juno and the Paycock.
Juno—which played a scant two weeks in its original Broadway run—is more dutiful than inspired. Stein's script hews close to O'Casey's story yet lacks the original play's gritty lyricism. Still, I think TimeLine's patrons will find much to admire in Juno. It's lovingly staged, very well acted, and beautifully sung. Hearing good, strong voices au naturel, unfiltered by amplification, is a treat that the rest of the audience seemed to enjoy as much as I did.
Juno's story—including two murders and an ill-fated love affair—is set against the background of the bloody Irish rebellion against British oppression. Juno Boyle, the matriarch of a working-class family living in a Dublin slum tenement in 1921, is a flinty, loving, yet tart-tongued woman whose sole purpose in life is to keep her family together. Her husband, Jack, is a drunken loafer, determined to avoid work even when a job is offered in friendship. To his coarse companions in the local pub this blowhard is "the Captain," a "darlin' man" with a quintessentially Irish gift of gab. Juno, however, calls him "the paycock" (peacock) because of his strutting vanity.
Juno's daughter Mary, a trade unionist on strike, spends her time dreaming of a better life. Mary's one-armed brother, Johnny, disabled during the Irish War of Independence, cowers in his bedroom. Having informed on one of his former comrades, he's now hiding from an Irish Republican Army death squad.
Relief seems to come when an elegant young English lawyer, Charlie Bentham, announces that Jack is set to receive a large inheritance from a deceased cousin. Jack plunges the family into debt, using credit to purchase new clothes, furniture, even a gramophone. Mary, rejecting the attentions of an earnest local lad, falls for Charlie's smooth speech and fine airs.
The tragic outcome of all this is painfully predictable, even if you don't know O'Casey's original play. Watching the story unfold, I had the sense of the show setting up ducks in order to shoot them down. Jack goes on a spending spree—and we know the money will never arrive. Johnny is marked for retribution by the IRA; you don't need a Gerry Adams to tell you what's to come of that. Mary gives herself to Charlie, and we know he'll end up abandoning her; the only uncertainty is how her parents will respond to the inevitable crisis. But that answer comes in a flurry of rushed activity in a final scene that resolves the plot in a hurry without providing the audience with emotional catharsis.
TimeLine's intimate production boasts a tidy, efficient set by John Culbert and lovely, colorful costumes by Alex Wren Meadows; ironically, the design seems ill suited to the characters' supposed poverty. The show also fails to convey to the audience a constant awareness of the political oppression that shapes the characters' daily lives. There are occasional outbursts of violence—the show begins quite shockingly, in fact, with members of a British hit squad, the Black and Tans, shooting down an IRA fugitive in the street—but not the omnipresent sense of danger that's needed.
Blitzstein's music, well crafted though not particularly memorable, is the main draw here. It blends Irish folk idioms with the kind of classically influenced arcing melodies one associates with the operas and art songs of Benjamin Britten and Gian Carlo Menotti. It's a refreshingly unformulaic sound, yet always accessible.
Heading the uniformly excellent cast, Marya Grandy brings an interesting mix of charm and steeliness to Juno. Ron Rains is very much the blustery charmer as Jack; Jonny Stein as Johnny excels in the second-act dream ballet depicting the character's guilt and terror. Soprano Emily Glick sings beautifully as Mary—the mother-daughter duets she and Grandy perform together are the highlights of the evening—and Jordan Brown and Peter Oyloe are fine as her suitors. Instead of a Broadway pit orchestra, the score is played by a five-piece band led by pianist Elizabeth Doran, visibly seated in an offstage area decorated like an Irish pub. The dominant instruments are a flute and a fiddle, providing a light and appealing sound well suited to the score.