Juno And The Paycock at the Guthrie Theater

David Darrow, Anita Reeves and Stephen Brennan in Juno And The Paycock. Photo by Joan Marcus.

David Darrow, Anita Reeves and Stephen Brennan in Juno And The Paycock. Photo by Joan Marcus.

You have to respect Joe Dowling for closing his long and celebrated tenure as the Guthrie Theater’s artistic director with Sean O’Casey‘s classic Juno and the Paycock, a show that pays homage to his most personal cultural and artistic influences while being consistently honest and challenging. The show is an appropriate send-off, as not only does it convey deep appreciation of Dowling’s heritage and previous work at Dublin’s Abbey Theater, but it was his mounting of this show on Broadway in 1988 that helped usher him to prominence. The choice to finish his directorial work at the Guthrie with this show also shows integrity, as it is more likely to leave audiences in a state of somber silence than elicit a string of standing ovations. He will not exit to raucous applause, but rather has elected to lead his final audiences to contemplation of difficult and important matters.

Juno and the Paycock tells the story of the Boyles, a deeply impoverished Irish family struggling to find hope in the midst of the Irish Civil War. The play’s titular figures are aged spouses who cope with their desperate state in conflicting ways. Juno (Anita Reeves), a fiery and sincere woman, seeks to find any means possible to provide for her grown children, a daughter on strike from her work (Katie Kleiger) and a son who is badly injured and mentally tortured due to his part in the war (David Darrow). Juno’s husband Jack (Stephen Brennan), given the nickname of “Paycock” due to his affinity for boasting like a peacock, is an affable but insufferable drunk who looks to evade work at all costs.

O’Casey’s play explores the changing dynamics of this family following unexpected news and flows freely between comic hijinks and sobering tragedy. Impressively, these sudden shifts in tone never feel forced, but are marked with sincerity that adds weight to both the play’s celebration and mourning. In juxtaposing the humor of life with the grief, both elements are made vital in finding a way to press on to another day.

Juno and the Paycock requires great work from its cast, who must move effortlessly between bitter comedy and immense tragedy. Luckily, the Guthrie production features a multitude of excellent performances, especially from its two leads, who are Abbey Theater regulars. Anita Reeves is absolutely exquisite as Juno, the family matriarch who could come across as nagging, but is hearty and warm, filled with naked distress as she ceaselessly works to move her family forward. Stephen Brennan imbues Jack with charm whilst frustrating his family and the audience every step he takes toward ruin. Guthrie native Mark Benninghofen is perfectly over the top as Jack’s closest pal, the ne’er-do-well Joxer, who is scrappy in his fight for survival and consistently finds his surroundings “darlin” no matter how harsh the reality. Much could be said of many of the performances, including a refreshing burst of energy from Sally Wingert and impressive physicality from David Darrow, which were nearly uniformly good.

The production’s design is particularly strong. Dowling has kept most of his original production’s set, a sparsely decorated, dilapidated homestead designed by Frank Hallinan Flood, and it captures the tone necessary for each act as the family’s fortunes fluctuate. A curtain falls periodically to explain the historic placement of the show’s action, similar to a silent film’s intertitles, and a history of the Irish Civil War is also provided in the playbill. Being unfamiliar with the details of that period of Irish history, this proved extraordinarily helpful when the play dives into plot elements dealing with the opposing sides of the conflict.

The play isn’t without its (slight) flaws. Specific rough patches include the Irish dialect, which several of the actors are unable to sustain. That being said, Juno is a splendid swan song for Dowling, who gives Minnesota audiences one last taste of his heritage and a reminder of his directorial excellence, which is on full display as the Boyle family ascends from and descends into hopelessness in a world swallowed by conflict and chaos.

David and Chelsea review movies on their site Movie Matrimony.

 

 

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