Theater Review: Juno and the Paycock, Unadilla Theatre
Courtesy of Alex Brown
David Connor as Jack Boyle, Juan Schwartz as Joxer Daly
Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock tackles such a broad range of social and personal passions that any description will sound a bit monumental, but that would be misleading. O’Casey propels his story and characters forward with grace and humor, and we engage with the people long before we notice that we’re gaining a window on every aspect of 1920s Irish society: poverty and labor rights, the IRA and the church, the bonds of family, and the power of alcohol.
Unadilla Theatre has been offering up classics like this for 30 years in a rural setting that’s not to be missed. No other Vermont theater concentrates exclusively on masterpieces and the very best of modern drama. A Unadilla production may lack polish but can make up for it with strong play selection. Juno is a perfect example. See it to appreciate how O’Casey can set his stories and characters in motion within a bleak, two-room tenement apartment.
The play is set in 1922, the year British and Irish negotiators produced a treaty that established the Irish Free State and triggered a civil war between treaty supporters and those seeking an independent republic — the Staters and Diehards mentioned in the play. For O’Casey’s Boyle family, conflict is all around. And the war stirs a tendency to take an absolute stand on everything, from religion to love to work. In this play, absolutes can survive only so long before they’re betrayed.
The Boyles’ biggest problem seems to be money. Patriarch Jack Boyle’s heyday — surely more imagined than real — is long past, but he trades on it as the boastful, preening “paycock” of the title. Now he sedulously avoids work, hiding behind false promises and complaints of a bum leg. As money dwindles away, drinking sustains his male vanity, and braggadocio lets him conceal even from himself his betrayal of family.
Daughter Mary is on strike instead of working because, as she says, “A principle’s a principle.” Son Johnny lost an arm in the Easter Rising of 1916. Six years later, unable to work, he broods by the fire in silent fear. He may have given a limb for Ireland, but recently he betrayed a comrade, and he knows soldiers on his side can’t allow such a transgression.
Joxer Daly, Jack Boyle’s drinking companion, wouldn’t find himself in Johnny’s dilemma. “Better to be a coward than a corpse,” Joxer crows, and so justifies a life of sponging off the Boyles. His selfish pragmatism allows him to betray anyone for a bite of sausage or bottle of stout.
Only Juno, Boyle’s wife, has little use for the absolutism that lures others to define themselves through principles. She is purely pragmatic, getting breakfast on the table, fending off creditors and going to work each day. She protects her family and forgives her shiftless husband — not because she’s a paragon but because she faces the world as it is, not as it might be dreamed.
O’Casey portrays these characters and assorted neighbors in largely comic terms, but he descends effortlessly to the darker sorrows these people face, and then rises to the humorous surface again. This deft balance makes the characters real, and consistently more important than the abstract principles they espouse.
Lack of money has beaten the Boyles down, but this intractable obstacle is overcome by a surprise inheritance. The joy they all feel is intoxicating. What will they do with their good fortune?
Mary will fall in love with Charles Bentham, the flashy, self-styled intellectual who brings them the good news. The neighbors will be treated to whiskey and spend pleasant evenings in song and conversation. But the good times will not last; O’Casey isn’t interested in happy endings but in our need to balance hope and despair, and to resort to delusion when all else fails.
Vincent Broderick plays the haunted Johnny with pained solemnity, one hand always at his temple struggling to quiet his brain. Broderick is nicely remote, without too much “explanation” oozing out of him. When this restraint is finally shattered toward the end of the play, we share Johnny’s terror. Broderick is a bit stiff on stage and tends to rely on external indicators instead of a character’s inner life, but he conveys Johnny’s intensity well.
Mary is ready to throw off old-fashioned sentimentality for hard-edged politics and alluring intellectuality. Claire Demarais is strong and focused in the role, and gets close to all her character’s edges, but ultimately pulls back just slightly. Missing from her portrayal is Mary’s desperate need to immerse herself in a brave new world, and her ache for Bentham’s approval. But her engagement with other actors is consistently impressive.
David Connor began opening night without the head of steam needed to make the lay-about blowhard Jack Boyle a dominant force. Connor captures Boyle’s sorrows but lacks his bravado. Boyle’s ability to ward off shame and fear is what makes him a charismatic presence — this is, after all, the quality of a leader. Connor imbues him with humor but goes for more of a sitcom take on a broken wreck than an examination of how Boyle makes a virtue of a moral void.
Still, Connor produces some of the greatest moments of the evening. His exuberance is infectious to other characters and to the audience, and his confrontations with family members are truly searing.
As Juno, Nika Allen is captivating when fully engaged in a scene, but she spent much of opening night struggling to keep her focus. This problem will most likely be solved during the run, and Allen may be able to reveal the Juno who is the pillar the play. Hints of the character emerged in the third act, when Allen’s concentration was complete. She still has some things to discover in the role, primarily Juno’s tireless strength in keeping the family together. Juno doesn’t merely cope, she steers. Allen needs to find that fire burning within her, something much more elemental than busy martyrdom.
The large cast includes solid supporting work from Juan Schwartz, Joe Laston, Martin Castonguay, Mary Scripps, Carl Emmons, Diane Kaganova, Bob Carmody and Emily Flynn.
Director Jeanne Beckwith shows good aptitude for shifting focus and flow through blocking, making the most of a confined space. She is equally capable staging the large, comic, multicharacter scenes and the more harrowing, tightly focused confrontations. Most important, Beckwith blends the happy and sad as O’Casey intended: heading straight down the middle to avoid the mawkish side of tragedy and the superficial distance of farce.
O’Casey keeps the audience committed to the characters by allowing their joys and foibles to make us laugh. But he steadily permits tragedy to chip away at their lives. In the first act, all the family’s problems are external; by the second, they intrude into the shabby apartment in the form of a mourning neighbor, a war mobilizer and the news neighbors bring. In Act Three, confronting problems head on is unavoidable. The comic perspective persists, but only as a way to handle heartbreak.
"Juno and the Paycock" by Sean O’Casey, directed by Jeanne Beckwith, produced by Unadilla Theatre. Wednesday through Saturday, July 24 to 27; Thursday through Saturday, August 1 to 3, 7:30 p.m. $20. Info, 456-8968. unadilla.org
The original print version of this article was headlined "Fighting Irish"