Monday, September 1, 2014

Sean O’Casey’s Tragicomedy at the Shaw: Juno and the Paycock

Corrine Kolso, Mary Haney, Jim Mezon and Benedict Campbell in Juno and the Paycock (Photo David Cooper)

My introduction to Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock came when I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University through a memorable black-box production where the audience sat tennis court-style on either side of a long, rectangular playing area. I recall being continually caught up short by the tonal shifts and amazed by the depth of the tragedy undergirding the domestic comedy: the battles between the long-suffering working-class Dublin housewife Juno Boyle and her indolent husband – known as the Captain because of a brief stint he spent on a ship, which he’s fanned into a romantic tale of maritime adventure – who fakes pains in his legs whenever the chance of a job rears its ugly head, preferring to spend his hours tossing back pints at one of the local snugs with his neighbor Joxer. These two incorrigible codgers are the only ones left on stage at the end, when the Boyle family has been torn apart and the creditors have claimed the furniture; they stumble onstage drunk out of their minds and pass out, in a moment that looks forward to the final curtain of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (where the stage is littered with aging, hopeless dipsomaniacs). In the Brandeis production, one of the pair rolled a whiskey jar to the dead centre of the stage; for the final stage picture, the lights faded to a single special on the empty jar.

That image encapsulates O’Casey’s bitter view of his countrymen. In his two masterpieces, Juno (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926), most of the characters are quarrelsome, back-biting, hypocritical, opportunistic, their natural belligerence exacerbated when they’re in their cups, as they so often are. But the point of view that got him in the most trouble was the one he’d arrived at, after his youthful union activities, by the time the Irish troubles reached their unhappy peak during Easter Week 1916. He was no English sympathizer, but his plays indicate a disgust with violence and an impatience with what he saw as the simplistic popular support of the IRA. The mottos of Republican support mouthed by his characters tend to be sentimental, liquor-soaked platitudes; the characters he backs are women victimized by the violence, who get caught in the crossfire (The Plough and the Stars) or, like Juno and her neighbor Mrs. Tancred, lose their sons to bullets. Robbie Tancred, whom we never meet, is cut down by a British soldier; Johnny Boyle, who took a bullet in the leg during the Easter Rebellion and lost his arm fighting on O’Connell Street, is eventually executed by his comrades for, they believe, revealing Robbie’s whereabouts to the British. O’Casey neither confirms nor denies this rumor because he doesn’t care about the motivation behind the killings; the play equalizes the two mothers’ losses. Echoing Mrs. Tancred en route to her son’s burial, Juno prays to God to melt men’s stone hearts into flesh and blood. Earlier, when both Johnny and his sister Mary, a factory worker on strike, spout clichés about the importance of principles, Juno replies, cocking her head at her son, “You lost your best principle when you lost your arm.”

The tragedy of Johnny’s murder, which follows the twin revelations that Mary is pregnant by a man who’s abandoned her and that the family is finally destitute, lies at the fag-end of a drama that begins as a comedy. Captain Boyle and Joxer’s schemes to avoid work and escape Juno’s detection – which always fail – are presented initially as comic escapades, and at the end of Act I (the play is in three acts) the Boyles get the news that the Captain has inherited what is to them a small fortune from a cousin. It’s a classic set-up: the money brings out the Captain’s pretentiousness, neighbors treat the Boyles like aristocrats, and they overspend foolishly. We wait for the inevitable blowback, followed by an eleventh-hour rescue. But the play is a piece of realism, and when the Boyles find out that, after all, they’re not going to get any money, there’s no salvation for them; the entire story of the inheritance vanishes like a mist.

Mary Haney and Marla McLean (Photo: Emily Cooper)

The trick to performing Juno and the Paycock is achieving tonal balance. In the current, mixed production at the Shaw Festival, helmed by artistic director Jackie Maxwell, the comedy tends to be of a sitcom nature and the tragedy is sometimes inflated, pushed too hard, so that it comes across as melodrama. The actors shout too much – the Royal George Theatre isn’t large enough for all that volume – and both the farce moments (like the boisterous Maisie Madigan’s efforts to recover a loan from the Captain after the neighborhood has discovered that he’s not going to be rich) and the most dramatic ones (like Johnny’s being taken away by the IRA) are clumsily staged. But the biggest problem is the casting of Shaw veteran Mary Haney as Juno. Haney has considerable technical know-how but no subtlety. From the beginning she plays Juno as tough and sinewy; she has a way of twisting her face into a scowl that both makes Juno look exactly like half a dozen other characters I’ve seen Haney play and turns O’Casey heroine into an emblem. When Mary bemoans the fact that her baby won’t have a father and Juno answers, “It’ll have what is far better. It’ll have two mothers,” Haney reads the line like a feminist proclamation, which rings completely false for the play’s 1922 setting. And she goes so far over the top in act three, making a meal out of Juno’s response to the back-to-back revelations about Johnny’s death and the lost inheritance, that the scene loses its power. I saw Dearhbla Molloy play this role in an off-Broadway production in 2000, directed by John Crowley, and the force of fate’s blows exposed deeper and deeper layers of pain and quiet strength, as they do in the grief-stricken principals in The Trojan Women. Haney’s performance deteriorates into stock theatricality.

The actors around her are good enough to counter much of the production’s tendency toward overstatement. As Boyle, Jim Mezon is often too big; that’s his flaw as an actor. But he’s a superb technician and an imaginative one, and he hits all the notes – the comic and the tragic ones – in the writing of the Captain. He has one moment that I think is inspired: when he plays one of his new acquisitions, a Victrola (bought with money, of course, that exists only in theory), he executes a silly little mock-march up and down, underscoring the miraculous nature of this machine and making a joke of his pleasure at the same time. Benedict Campbell counters Mezon by underplaying cleverly as Joxer, that colossal fake who lives off the generosity of his friend, flattering him shamelessly by expanding extravagantly on all his likes and dislikes and then, when he sees that the well has run dry, joining the other neighbors in enjoying the spectacle of the “paycock” brought low. Marla McLean gives a lyrical reading of the ingénue role, Mary; Charlie Gallant makes jittery, neurotic Johnny as haunted as a doomed figure out of Poe. Andrew Bunker’s portrait of Jerry Devine, the leftist worker whose unrequited love for Mary, like his liberalism, turns out to have limitations, is beautifully drawn; this is Bunker’s twelfth season with the Shaw, and he’s grown into a solid character actor.

The role of Charles Bentham, the lawyer who brings the news of the will, romances Mary and then deserts her, is a little underwritten, but the gifted Gord Rand fills it in, adding unstressed layers of self-adoration and condescension. (He hands off his hat and coat when he enters the Boyles’ flat as if he were used to the toadying of those he believes to be his inferiors.) Best of all is Jennifer Phipps, whose single second-act scene as the mourning Mrs. Tancred is the highlight of the show. This is the scene that shifts the play’s tone for good and all, and though I’ve seen it played as well by other actresses – like Roberta Maxwell in the Crowley production – I’ve never seen it played better. Phipps, like a number of the Shaw’s older company members, tends to be underused, but she always brings color and intensity to her appearances. I regret that I wasn’t able to see another of my favorites, Corrine Koslo, as Maisie Madigan; at the performance I attended, Donna Belleville stepped in to replace her, and though it was a game try, Belleville wasn’t quite right for the part. (She’s much more at ease in The Charity That Began at Home.) The ensemble is the raison d’être of this Juno. They place themselves at the service of O’Casey’s great play, which seems as towering an achievement now as it must have seemed nearly a century ago.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment