Three decades ago, Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre debuted with a revival of Sean O’Casey’s 1926 drama The Plough and the Stars. Today, the company is now revisiting the play (in a striking new production by artistic director Charlotte Moore) as the final piece of its ambitious Sean O’Casey Season, which consists of productions of the three plays in O’Casey’s so-called Dublin Trilogy (The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars), each of which depicts a different moment in the Irish revolutionary period of the early 20th century.
The Plough and the Stars is set a few months before the Easter Rising (during which working-class Dubliners go through their everyday routines, discuss politics and become increasingly wrapped up in patriotic zeal, as seen in the unveiling of the “Plough and the Stars” flag after a rally) and then during the uprising itself (marked by violence on the streets and spilling into nearby buildings). Memorable characters include Nora Clitheroe (Clare O’Malley), a young pregnant woman whose husband Jack (Adam Petherbridge) has left her in order to fight, leading to tragedy for both; Bessie Burgess (Maryann Plunkett), a fruit vendor who lacks everyone else’s patriotic zeal; Rosie (Sarah Street), a prostitute who finds that the fighting is hurting her business; and a random upper-class woman (Terry Donnelly) who finds herself lost, scared and out of place amid the chaos. The actors (who are now juggling roles in multiple productions) make for a tight and nimble ensemble.
Personally speaking, the O’Casey Cycle has marked my first time experiencing any of these plays (which probably accounts for a great deal of my enthusiasm for the productions). With that in mind, the stinging viewpoint and episodic structure of The Plough and the Stars (which incited riots during its premiere run) came as a surprise compared with the prior two plays, which are tempered by the injection of humor (as seen in the farcical, mistaken identity setup of The Shadow of a Gunman and the shameless antics of Captain Jack Boyle in Juno and the Paycock). The end of The Plough and the Stars is outright apocalyptic in nature. Also, unlike the prior two plays, The Plough and the Stars involves multiple settings, which is effectively and seamlessly handled by the use of a revolving stage.
Now that all three productions have officially opened, they will be performed in repertory through the end of June, allowing theatergoers who have not attended any of them (or perhaps even gone to the Irish Rep before) the rare opportunity to see all three plays at once. Interestingly, the Irish Rep premiered the plays in the order in which they were written. On the other hand, on the upcoming Saturdays when all three plays will be presented together, the plays will be performed in the order of the time periods depicted in each play: The Plough and the Stars (the Easter Rising), followed by The Shadow of a Gunman (the Irish War of Independence), followed by Juno and the Paycock (the Irish Civil War).
Not coincidentally, the Irish Rep just received a special citation by the Drama Critics Circle (of which I am a member) as part of its annual awards selection. While the Irish Rep has presented many fine revivals of classic plays (plus a few musicals) over the years, The O’Casey Season (for which the interior of the theater space has been redone to resemble an urban tenement building) represents a standout moment in the theater’s history and definitely deserves to be recognized as such. Here’s hoping for future seasons that are just as ambitious in scope and scale.