DYNAMIC MOVES Energy abounds in AIRE’s Juno and the Paycock.
Matriarch Juno (Maureen Butler), is the only one of the Boyles who brings in any coin: Her husband Jack (Tony Reilly) is a drunken boor who, to avoid working, feigns aches in his legs. Their daughter Mary (Elizabeth Lardie) is on strike, and her brother Johnny (Joe Bearor) lost an arm in the Irish Civil War. This is luckless life in the Dublin tenements, in Sean O’Casey’s rich and devastating tragicomedy Juno and the Paycock, the Irish classic first staged at Dublin’s Abbey Theater in 1924. It runs this month at the St. Lawrence in an uncommonly rich and wrenching production by the American Irish Repertory Ensemble, under the excellent direction of Sally Wood.
To watch an ensemble of such ability and rapport take on O’Casey’s marvelous, evocative vernacular — both comic and tragic — is a rare pleasure. Reilly is in top louche form as he careens, pouts, and fumes, and Butler’s monumental Juno meets him head-on, strident and wise. Bearor’s haunted Johnny lurches about the flat like a hurt bird, wide-eyed and clutching a rosary; and Lardie’s keen Mary is lovely and excruciated: Watch her, in the presence of her higher-born English beau Charles Bentham (Mark Rubin), as she helplessly clenches eyes and hands against the audible buffoonery of her dad in the next room. And ah, the comedic manna of Reilly buddied drunkenly up with Paul Haley, as the deliciously scurvy Joxer Daly. Just watch the two men mutter and moan with their mouths full of sausage links . . .
One of director Wood’s areas of expertise is fight choreography, and so perhaps it’s no wonder that the physical movements of this production are so profoundly dynamic, so richly illustrative of the psychic strife at play in the Boyle home as they are teased and then scorned by fortune. On Craig Robinson’s simple, poverty-strafed set — mottled walls of gray-blue and bone-white ripped open to reveal thin strapping beneath — actors set off subtle little Rube Goldberg torrents of action: Glances upon slams upon shoves, entrances coming quick on the tail of exits, chairs and bottles raised and banged down.
With the exception of a slightly shaky accent or two, this ensemble’s work is simply masterful. Even in the second act, when the family’s downward spiral is so vertiginous that the script skirts melodrama, performances are nuanced enough to hold it off: Watch for Mary’s harrowing scene with her former beau Jerry (Matthew Delamater) as she is led first to believe he will save her, and then to despair of being saved.
O’Casey’s harrowing humanism in Juno is an object lesson in why a culture has “classics,” works that we return to, that transcend particular eras, places, and intellectual underpinnings.
Because of the acuity of O’Casey’s eye and ear, and the generosity and ache of his feeling for his characters, we feel for their plights — war, poverty, heartache — before ever thinking to marvel at their creator’s skill.
“Chains and slavery,” an inebriated Jack laments of the human condition. “That’s a darlin’ mortal.” AIRE’s resonant production of O’Casey’s work recalls that it is mortals who forge those chains, but also mortals who could break them, if they only would.
Megan Grumbling can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK | by Sean O’Casey | Directed by Sally Wood | Produced by the American Irish Repertory Ensemble | at the St. Lawrence | through May 23 | 207.799.5327