JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK
at the 1994 International Theatre Festival of Chicago, Merle Reskin Theatre
It's impossible to imagine a play with so much love for its flawed characters finding a more loving staging. This electric revival by the Gate Theatre of Dublin, a crown jewel in the International Theatre Festival, establishes the tensile power of Sean O'Casey's 1924 story, crafting each moment for its full humor and emotion. Joe Dowling's staging rises above any potential for melodrama or stereotyping to deliver three hours of hard truth.
The triumph is the greater because this uncompromising play has an immense capacity to enrage and depress. It's easy to imagine riots breaking out today over Juno and the Paycock, as they did over O'Casey plays decades ago. This playwright relentlessly exposes his fellow Irishmen (with emphasis on "men")--their penchant for phony sentiment and religious rigidity, their lazy love of bluster and beer, and the wasteful way they worship the martyred dead and ignore the needy living. This tragicomedy has an operatic range. The second act, with its promise of sudden wealth, veers from raucous comedy to trenchant suffering to acidic satire, and each shift is exactly right.
Juno offers a series of shocks. Fate relentlessly grinds down the Boyle family, poor Dubliners who infest a shabby-genteel tenement in 1922. The play is set in the worst days of a singularly stupid time of troubles, the Irish Civil War, a time when murderous fanatics believed, as they do now, that "no one can do enough for Ireland." The slacker father, Captain Jack Boyle, is called "the paycock" for his vainglory: proud, ignorant, unemployed, in debt, and anesthetized by booze to his fallen state, he moans over his aching legs as he drinks his way down to the last farthing. Jack's craven, treacherous friend Joxer Daly sponges off his friend and steals his spoons. Jack's bitter, ghostlike son Johnny, still clinging to his republican "principles," has lost an arm in the war yet finds himself fingered by the IRA Irregulars as an informer. It's easy to imagine men as obsessed with martyrdom and a cause today in Ulster, Serbia, Rwanda, the Middle East--and Chicago.
If it weren't for O'Casey's compassion mixed with gallows humor, Juno and the Paycock would be too bleak to take. He lavishes his compassion, however, entirely on the women. Jack's daughter Mary still hopes for a better life, perhaps with Charles Bentham, the young lawyer who brings news of a bequest. But the powerhouse of the family, in a portrait as indelible as any by John Steinbeck or Lorraine Hansberry, is Juno Boyle, the long-suffering, tough-loving mother. Raging against the daily diminishment poverty brings, Juno is the play's heart, the one force great enough to balance the bad luck.
Other Juno productions I've seen have played up either the music-hall humor and blue-collar messiness or the Beckettlike hopelessness of the final scenes. Dowling's inspired take, worthy of Odets and Brecht, conveys the author's socialist sympathies through the characters' connections, the false ties of greed and misguided patriotism, and their attempts at solidarity, which here fall short of O'Casey's ideal and only divide and conquer.
Many of O'Casey's phrases might elude an American audience (the program provides a glossary of the slang and dated allusions), but the context supplies much of the meaning, and this cunning cast bring the emotions through like a prophecy. In Anita Reeves's consummate portrayal, Juno's resourceful and implacable love is unmistakable, especially in her instant rage at the sacrifices that are never enough and her sudden doubt of a God who shows no more care for them than do the factions in the war.
Brendan Gleeson captures Jack Boyle's garrulous blarney yet never forfeits his humanity, and John Kavanagh both enjoys and exploits foxy Joxer's smarmy venality; whether these two are slurping their stout or dissolving in operatic self-pity, their exchanges are vaudeville-sharp. Tom Murphy as Johnny recalls every partisan who ever refused to confront the pointlessness of his sacrifices; as his sister, Antoine Byrne breaks your heart eight ways.
From the moment you see it, Frank Hallinan Flood's tenement set is a place you want to escape. Every inch seems a warning and a curse.