By Holli Harms
DRUIDO’CASEY, The Dublin-based Druid Theatre’s brilliant staging of three of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey’s plays of Ireland’s persistent accumulation of war and uprising in the early part of the nineteenth century as seen through the eyes of the working men and women who inhabited the tenement slums of Dublin, is astonishing. They presented all three plays at once making for a full day of theater.
These three monumental jewels of Irish literature, penned by O’Casey during the ceaseless fighting, are infinite brilliance of how language can be stroked into submission, into high-energy gossip, and weaponized into a sense of security of faith and belief in a country’s need to rule itself, and in the individual citizen’s belief that they must live and laugh and die for their country.
O’Casey sets his trilogy in the tenement buildings of Dublin’s slums, its occupants struggling to get on with some form of normalcy. All drinking and arguing, all confrontations of truth, of choices of food and clothing, of patriotism and strength taken on with great joy, satisfaction, and fervor.
The evening opens with a single actor on stage. He enters, walks from stage left to stage right, turns to the huge beautiful wooden wall that is the house curtain, raises his hand, and knocks. Loud, hard, slow, deliberate knocks. The wall rises and we begin.
The Plough and The Stars, the first of the trilogy, is set during the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1915. Irish Rebels tired of British rule took to the streets and buildings to fight for their land and their freedom. The battle went on for five days leaving rebels and British soldiers wounded and dead, but the bulk of the dead – Irish citizens caught in the crossfire.
Here are Jack (Liam Heslin) and Nora (Sophie Lenglinger) recently married and still in the throes of romantic love. They want to get on with their life but Rebels have attacked and Jack must take on his former role as a member of the Irish Army and fight them. He doesn’t want to harm those whose fight he believes in and Nora doesn’t want him to get killed. The residents are all struggling to survive this siege on their city and themselves. The wonderful bar scene, with our residents getting so scuttered that a baby is tossed to the men so that mother and neighbor can engage in non-lady-like fisticuffs, is part of the hilarity and physical comedy that O’Casey captivates us with and draws us into these marvelous characters whose language is lifted to lyrical prose. In the end, as O’Casey is want to do, the innocent are destroyed and the first of the struggles are lost.
In The Shadow of The Gunman, The Irish War of Independence is going strong. Guerrilla warfare headed by the IRA (The Irish Republican Army) is spreading with small battles popping up here and there. Donal Davoren (Marty Rea), is a poet rooming with Seumus Shields (Rory Nolan), a salesman of household goods and men’s suspenders. Donal has been mistaken by several of the residents of the building as being an IRA gunman on the run. This notoriety brings him and Shields both celebrity status. Shields, enjoying the higher ranks of men, is saying nothing to change their minds, especially since the young and attractive Minnie Powell (Caitriona Ennis) is about. Minnie has decided she is in love with Donal and pursues him with humor and flattery. What none of them know is that a bag their neighbor and friend Mr. Maguire left in their room to watch over, is filled with murderous items for the IRA. Minnie will in a fit of love take the bag from Donal’s care. Taking it to protect him and in the end will be her end. O’Casey once again ends the life of an innocent, one who sacrifices herself to save the life of the man she loves. Bravery from a woman we took for granted. Minnie outdoes all the men and becomes their quiet hero.
The final story of the evening begins with the same individual from the opening of the day entering, walking, and knocking. The wall rises for the final time.
The final of the trilogy Juno and The Paycock, often regarded as O’Casey’s masterpiece, is set during the Irish Civil War and focuses on the tenets of the building that Juno (Hilda Fay) and her husband Jack (Rory Nolan) whom she refers to as a Paycock (Irish pronunciation of Peacock) live. Juno is, as are all the women, in O’Casey’s trilogy, the backbone of the family working to make money to put food on the table, loving and taking care of her family as both mother and father figure. Because Jack is indeed a peacock. A man who would rather spend his days at the pub regaling the others with his stories of clever strength, his humor, and hail-fellow-well-met fun. Jack and Juno have two children, Mary (Zara Devlin), young and pretty, and Johnny (Tommy Harris) their son who lost his arm and damaged his hip in the war. Johnny lives in a world of anger, depression, and guilt. The family discovers that a relative has died and left them a large sum of money. They are now rich and start to purchase furniture and clothing and much more on credit knowing that once the money comes in they will be able to pay the merchants for all the goods. They are living and loving and acting the life of the upper class. Mary has become engaged to Charles Bentham, the local schoolteacher, and the man who brought the family news of the money. All is going well.
Until the Will is read, and they find that Jack’s name was not written down, only his relation to the relative as 4th cousin. They will receive none of the money as everyone and his brother has come forward and claimed to be a 4th cousin. In the end, we are left with Jack and his good mate, Joxer ( Aaron Monaghan), beyond drunk as Jack drinks away the truth of his life. He has nothing. He is alone. Mary finds herself pregnant by Charles who, because she is no longer a woman with money, has left. She stands on stage with mother Juno, who promises to stick by her child, declaring to Mary and God that the two of them will raise the baby. Two mothers. Mary asks what about a father. Not needed. Two mothers.
O’Casey’s women hold it all together. He has lifted them in their humor and suffering to angelic heights. The mother, the wife, the lover, the prostitute, the daughter, and the sister, encompass strength and redemption and affirm that they and they alone are the backbone of family and country.
The ensemble brought over from the Druid Theatre is perfection. Garry Hynes’ directing is fast, direct, complicated, and real. The set, lights, costumes, haunting dilapidation.
This is a production not to be missed.
With: Gabriel Adewusi, Tara Cush, Zara Devlin Caitríona Ennis, Hilda Fay, Tommy Harris, Anna Healy, Liam Heslin, Bosco Hogan, Sean Kearns, Sophie Lenglinger, Garrett Lombard, Aaron Monaghan, Sarah Morris, Rory Nolan, Robbie O’Connor, Marty Rea and Catherine Walsh
Creative Team: Director Garry Hynes, Set and Costume Design Francis O’Connor, Co-Costume Design Clíodhna Hallissey, Lighting Design James F. Ingalls, Sound Design Gregory Clarke,
Movement Director David Bolger, Composer and Musical Director Conor Linehan, Casting Director Amy Rowan, Hair and Make-Up Design Gráinne Coughlan, Associate Director Sarah Baxter, Assistant Director Katie O’Halloran, Assistant Lighting Designer Suzie Cummins
Executive Producer Paul Boskind
The Plough and The Stars Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes w/ intermission
The Shadow of a Gunman Running Time: 90 Minutes no intermission
Juno and The Paycock Running Time: 2 Hours and 15 Minutes w/intermission
Skirball Center For the Performing Arts 566 LaGuardia Pl, New York, NY 10012