When Sean O’Casey put pen to paper for Juno and the Paycock, the 1924 Dubliner domestic drama set against the ghastly Irish Civil War, the playwright’s country was in a martial fog. The war was fresh enough that nobody had yet cleaned the bloodstains from the stone banks of the Liffey, a 10-minute walk from O’Casey’s boyhood home. So it’s a minor miracle that Juno can be a funny and humane play, given the right sort of production; and no wonder that it can be oppressively dark if, as is the case in a new production at the Irish Repertory Theatre, the jokes don’t fall, and the cast doesn’t quite cohere.
Juno‘s characters spend their two hours onstage flailing from misery to fresh misery, knowing only brief and deluded flashes of interstitial joy. Juno Boyle, an exhausted wife and mother, humorlessly attempts to hold together her disaster of a family. Her son, Johnny, who’s lost an arm fighting for the IRA, is bedridden, howling, haunted, and hunted. Daughter Mary shall see her virtue despoiled by a skeezy English solicitor in the second act. And Juno’s husband, “Captain” Jack Boyle, the titular paycock (read: “peacock”), is an enthusiastic carouser, drinker, spendthrift, and spinner of yarns, who claims to be too fragile to work. Nothing goes well for Juno and family, nor for their friends and acquaintances, who nevertheless burst periodically from their own grim lives into Juno’s living room to sing songs (rousing) and offer comic relief (in this production, generally ineffectual).
At the Irish Rep, most of Juno‘s rare moments of delight come from Ciarán O’Reilly, whose Jack is a master of the soused bluster, as delightful to watch as he must be tedious to live with. I loved his delivery of this immortal line, remembering his days as a merchant seaman: “I affen looked up at the sky an’ assed mesself t’question: What is the moon? What is the stars?” Marvelous. As is Terry Donnelly, who plays a neighbor, Maisie. Donnelly’s lovely, expressive face suggests she knows a great deal more than she’s saying, smiling and drinking and dancing with Juno’s clan as they stumble towards oblivion.
Everybody else, however, from director Charlotte Moore on down, ought to do a bit more to vary the mood. This is especially true of the usually excellent John Keating, who plays Jack’s ne’er-do-well best friend and enabler and spends the show with his face frozen in a dumb grin, pitching his lines past the back row. And it’s true of Ed Malone, who plays one-armed Johnny with unceasing terror and anger, too bombastic to be affecting. J. Smith-Cameron and Mary Mallen, as Juno and Mary, are dully grim from curtain up to curtain call. Their characters’ lives are small and circumscribed; their performances needn’t be.