Juno and the Paycock may not be, as Burning Coal Theatre Company's Jerome Davis maintains, the greatest of all 20th century plays. But Sean O'Casey's dark comedy of tenement life during the Irish "Troubles" is indisputably one of the most original, and influential, entries in contemporary dramatic literature. It is a work of genius, in every sense of the word: the precursor to everything from kitchen sink to sitcom, the inspiration for everyone from Beckett and Miller to Roseanne and "Fawlty Towers"; it is also perhaps the finest modern delineation of family outside of another bitter Irishman's drama, Long Day's Journey into Night. Its relevance is at once its glory, and our shame.
Shame because, as with The Threepenny Opera, the avarice, poverty, repression, and civic violence it depicts are with us still, particularly — if not merely — in the Ireland of the 21st century. The crushing combination of political and religious sectarianism, alcoholic hopelessness, Church hypocrisy toward its poorest parishioners, and periodic explosions of senseless atrocity that wound body and soul equally — is there really much difference between the Dublins of 1922 and 2002?
O'Casey's Ireland was, in Ethan Mordden's splendid phrase, "a land charmed by weak men but kept alive by strong women." And so it is with the Boyles: relentlessly idle Captain Jack and workhorse Juno. These divisions of strength apply equally to their offspring (angry cripple Johnny and practical, intelligent Mary) and neighbors (tippling ne'er-do-well Joxer Daly and jolly but intractable Mrs. Madigan). Mary's erstwhile suitors (pompous user Bentham and love-sick chauvinist Jerry) prove no more reliable than her blustering drunk of a father; indeed, it is Bentham whose over-educated foolishness proves the ruination of the family even as he callously demolishes Mary herself.
Yet, stunningly, this is all the occasion for comedy. I do not agree with the current Burning Coal production's director when he avers that the tragic elements in Juno come suddenly amid the script's hilarity. A tragic inevitability hangs over the play like a fine Irish mist, and the seeds of its emotional climax are as evident as the empty sleeve on Johnny's sweater.
While most of the acting by the company is, characteristically, superb, the lower-class Dublin accents are highly variable; only a handful of the actors can manage, or sustain, the brogue. Thus, Debra Gillingham's otherwise radiant Juno is less effective than it might be, as is the case with Emily Ranii's correspondingly convincing Mary. David Dossey makes a fine Captain Jack, self-righteous and self-deluded in equal measures.
In the small but pivotal role of the grieving Mrs. Tancred, Melissa Ricketts is moving despite being both too young for the role and not Irish in the least. Michael O'Foghludha, on the other hand, is as deliciously comic playing the tailor Nugent as he is darkly terrifying in the guise of the IRA Mobilizer. Kenny Gannon and David Byron Hudson neither disgrace nor distinguish themselves, but the production's weakest link is the Johnny of Lennardo Delaine, as one-noted as he is occasionally unintelligible.
Best of all is James Fleming as that vast hypocrite Joxer Daly. Fleming perfectly embodies the genial, even charming, dipsomaniac with whose duplicitous company the weak-willed Captain can never fully dispense. Rolling out Joxer's trademark "daahrlin' man" or sneaking bits of Boyle's breakfast behind his back, Fleming seems to be not so much performing the role as inhabiting it, from within and without. No less impressive is Nan I. Stephenson as Mrs. Madigan. Stephenson is so rigorously correct in her accent you half expect her playbill bio to list her nativity as County Cork. Her marvelously robust second-act entrance brings such a breath of lively air to the proceedings that when she exits, something indispensable seems to go out with her.
A few aspects of the physical production are a bit askew: the newly purchased furniture of the second act is rather too aesthetically pleasing to represent the vulgarity O'Casey stipulates and, while it may be a minor point, where is Jack Boyle's ubiquitous seaman's cap? The pace of Davis's direction is just about perfect, however, and, despite my criticisms, the production as a whole is largely satisfying.
The saddest measure of Ireland's progress may lie in a single O'Casey line. When Juno cries in despair, "Will these troubles never end?" she means those, with a lower-case "t" which have befallen her family. But "The Troubles" go on and on. Sadly, Juno and the Paycock shows us why.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Juno and the Paycock Wednesday-Saturday, Dec. 18-21, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 22, at 2 p.m. in the Gaddy-Goodwin Theatre at Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, NC. $15 ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active military personnel). 919/388-0066 or http://www.burningcoal.org/ticketsJUNO2.htm. http://www.burningcoal.org/Juno%20&%20the%20Paycock.htm.