Knock, knock, knock – there’s a stranger at the door.
Watching the Irish Repertory Theatre’s new Off-Broadway production of Sean O’Casey’s 1924 drama Juno and the Paycock (marking the midpoint of the company’s ambitious three-part “Sean O’Casey Season,” showcasing the author’s “Dublin Trilogy”), I couldn’t help but notice how the uninvited stranger showing up at one’s home or community (often presenting danger for the main characters) is such a regular device in Irish drama. Contemporary examples include Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman (Irish Republican Army figures), Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen (a possible killer and/or psychopath) and Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer (the devil).
The stranger device shows up in The Shadow of a Gunman, the first work in the “Dublin Trilogy” (which can be seen again at the theater once all three plays are up and running in repertory). The strangers who show up at the end are English auxiliary soldiers on the lookout for IRA members, who end up taking away a young woman with IRA sympathies.
In Juno and the Paycock (set in Dublin during the 1922 Irish Civil War), the situation is twisted, and the IRA is now the stranger, with unforgiving and angry members who intend to question (and later drag away and murder) the family’s terrified son Johnny, who fought (and lost an arm) in the Irish War of Independence but subsequently turned informant, leading to the death of Johnny’s friend Robbie Tancred. Robbie’s mother also shows up in the midst of a solemn funeral procession.
Another kind of stranger who shows up at the Boyle family’s tenement apartment door and brings tragedy is Charles Bentham, a schoolteacher and would-be attorney, who initially brings news that the family has won a generous inheritance from a little-known relative and presents himself as a refined suitor for the family’s young daughter Mary. Eventually, it is revealed that Charles botched the will, depriving the family of its expected financial windfall. Not only that, Charles abandons the newly pregnant Mary, further adding to the family’s ruin and humiliation.
That being said, the heart of Juno and the Paycock lies in its title characters, Juno Boyle, a hardworking and self-reliant mother and wife, and her husband “Captain” Jack Boyle, a self-loving, onetime merchant sailor who now spends his days shirking available employment opportunities and getting drunk with his lowlife pal Joxer. Upon receiving news of the inheritance, Jack immediately begins buying up goods on credit, which later leads to a ransacking of the apartment by both creditors and neighbors demanding their money. While Jack reacts to the family’s multiple tragedies by getting hopelessly drunk and blaming it all on others, Juno declares that she and Mary will survive elsewhere and on their own.
There is little doubt that Juno and the Paycock is a mightier and meatier play than the lesser-known The Shadow of a Gunman, which depends mainly on a single misunderstanding about whether a struggling, apolitical writer is in fact an IRA soldier. In addition to kitchen-sink family drama, political thriller, and social commentary, Juno and the Paycock also contains broad humor via Jack’s selfish disposition and shameless showboating.
The Irish Rep’s solid production (directed by Neil Pepe, whose Broadway credits include Broadway revivals of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow and A Life in the Theatre) attempts to heighten all of the play’s various personas. A bearded Ciaran O’Reily (who directed The Shadow of a Gunman) plays up the comedy as Jack, while John Keating makes for a creepily ghoulish Joxer. Maryann Plunkett (who won a Tony Award more than 30 years ago for Me and My Girl, and more recently took part in Richard Nelson’s trilogy The Gabriel Family Plays at the Public Theater) is dignified yet emotionally transparent as Juno Boyle.
Many of the other performances (including Ed Malone’s tense Johnny Boyle and James Russell’s snobbish Charles Bentham) are one-note in nature, but this is not a bad thing for Juno and the Paycock, which is at heart a melodrama built upon heightened theatricality and plot devices (as previously noted, such as the stranger at the front door). As with The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock benefits from the environmental scenic design, in which the audience is surrounded by elements of the tenement apartment building.
The trilogy will soon come to a finish with The Plough and the Stars. Assuming that it lives up to the excellence of both The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock, “The Sean O’Casey Season” will likely come to represent one of the strongest chapters in the history of the Irish Rep, which will hopefully encourage similarly innovative and large-scale projects in the future.