Juno and the Paycock, the second play in Irish playwright Sean O'Casey’s great Dublin Trilogy, is a stylistically slippery son of a gun. Set during the Irish Civil War of the early 1920s, it shifts from broad comedy to high tragedy on a dime – with long patches of vaudevillian clowning interrupted by heart-wrenching speeches by mourning women that seem ripped right out of Euripides.
In one of her most sensitive productions to date, director Jackie Maxwell skillfully steers the Shaw Festival ensemble through even the choppiest waters of O’Casey’s 1924 play. She has two able hands helping keep the ship on course: Mary Haney and Jim Mezon, who star as the title characters – the heroic Juno Boyle and her strutting, preening husband, “Captain” Jack Boyle.
You’ll recognize their working-class family dynamic from any number of Irish stories on stage or on screen: While Jack Boyle shirks work and spends what money he gets on going to the pub, Juno never stops working in and out of the home to keep the family together. As Juno and the Paycock begins, straits are even direr than usual as daughter Mary (Marla McLean) is on strike and son Johnny (Charlie Gallant) is unemployable, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after losing his arm in the War of Independence that preceded the current civil unrest.
When an anglophile solicitor named Bentham (Gord Rand, effectively aloof) shows up with news that the Boyle family has inherited a small fortune from a long-lost relative, it seems too good to be true. Of course, and this is hardly a spoiler, it is: Whether rich or poor, the men of the Boyle family are fated to tear the family to pieces just as the men of Ireland are doing the same with the country.
It’s odd how prominent a role Henrik Ibsen is playing this season at the Shaw Festival despite there being none of the Norwegian’s works on the bill. Half of Bernard Shaw’s play The Philanderer takes place at a club named after Ibsen – to which only manly women and womanly men are admitted. In Juno and the Paycock, Ibsen pops up when Captain Jack Boyle – whose bluster and buffoonery Mezon applies an unsettling undercoat of menace – stumbles upon what his daughter is reading. “The Doll’s House, Ghosts, an’ The Wild Duck,” he scoffs. “Buks only fit for chiselurs.” (That’s how O’Casey wrote it – and the cast, most of the time, does an okay job selling the dialect.)
O’Casey, like Shaw, may have been inspired by Ibsen’s naturalism, but the very metatheatrical presence of these plays on the stage shows that he couldn’t be constrained by it. Maxwell’s production, expressionistically designed by Peter Hartwell, is most riveting when exploring the moments that Juno and the Paycock moves into heightened registers – especially, the last two astounding scenes.
First comes the punch to the gut, with Haney, rising to the occasion, delivering the play’s most famous speech as the family suffers its largest loss. “Sacred heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh!” she cries, straight out, breaking the fourth wall and every heart in the audience.
If this penultimate scene harkens back to Greek tragedy, the final one looks ahead to the works of Samuel Beckett as Boyle and his ne’er-do-well pal Joxer (an uneven Benedict Campbell) return from a night of drinking and stumble around the apartment in the dark. It’s a scene pulled off terrifically here with Mezon and Campbell descending into terrifying incoherence.
If the play has its dull patches earlier, it’s more O’Casey’s fault than the cast. (There’s a terrific supporting performance of terror from Gallant who has few lines, but is always a striking presence.) With its adventurous ending, it’s easy to forget that Juno and the Paycock is not a mythological play or an absurdist one, but was political and polemic and daringly topical in its time. First staged in the spring of 1924, it was set only a couple years earlier and tackled the divisions between “Diehards” and “Free-Staters“ in Ireland that were hardly healed, head-on. O’Casey’s next play in his Dublin Trilogy, The Plough and the Stars, would be even more explosive and result in rioting.
Can you imagine living in a society where the drama engages so directly with the society in which we live? It was only after seeing Juno and the Paycock that I realized that this is the first season since Maxwell took over as artistic director of the Shaw Festival that not a single Canadian work – whether original or adapted – has been on the playbill.