Joe Dowling bowed arm-in-arm with the cast on Friday, opening night of Juno and the Paycock at the Guthrie Theater.
In the exits, a woman told her friend, “Well…it’s Irish. He’s Irish.”
“I think it was a little dry,” her friend replied.
The 1924 play by fellow Irishman Sean O’Casey isn’t a surprise pick for Dowling, the Guthrie’s longtime artistic director—if you know the asterisk. Dowling first directed the play (about a tenement Irish family coming into a windfall against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War) at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1986 and took it overseas to rave reviews in New York.
On Friday, though, the audience—even the cast—seemed to initially struggle.
The basics are Dublin camp: the dad, Captain Jack Boyle (Stephen Brennan), can’t get a job (leg pains); his loser friend Joxer (Mark Benninghofen) is always drunk; the mom (Juno, played by Anita Reeves) still cooks his breakfast; the son (David Darrow) lost his arm securing Ireland’s Free State; and the daughter (Katie Kleiger) is in love and can’t decide what color ribbon to wear in her hair. Toward the first act’s end, these working-class characters meets an impending Beverly Hillbillies send-up when Captain Boyle (who “struts around like a paycock,” i.e. peacock, says Juno) comes into quite a fortune from a deceased relative.
The first act (the only one buffered by an intermission) is laborious and veers ahead like a kiddywampus Model T. Is this comedy? Why the drab tenement set, then? The witty script’s rapid-fire cutting down of pretensions (Johnny accosts his dad for putting-on and then taking-off-again his moleskin trousers) falls on deaf ears. On Friday Brennan garbled his dialogue, Benninghofen’s Irish brogue came and (mostly) went, and a bizarrely long mastication scene might have caused the audience to wonder whether someone forgot a line.
Perhaps Dowling and his cast see the play as political, leading them to treat with tenderhooks roles rife with social overtones: the disabled veteran, the pregnant teenager, the alcoholic father—but, in good Irish drama form, these characters aren’t archetypes.
Yes, there’s a populist heart here (it’s no coincidence Dowling opens with Luke Kelly and the Dubliners as newsreels detail context), but O’Casey—a staunch socialist—fills the stage with un-heroic people savaging human nature, not socio-political norms. If you’ve sat through a 19th- and 20th-Century Realism and Naturalism class in your undergraduate education, you may remember that social ills are less things to be rooted out than they are ghosts that haunt and will continue to haunt the citizenry (no matter how “free” we become).
Briefly, in moments of levity, we—like the nostalgic, sea-averse sailor, Captain Boyle—can look at the sky and ask, “What is the moon? What is the stars?” This play’s ending, though, has Boyle in a bleak state—and by that point, we’re all there. The unraveling gains steam in Acts III and IV; the pacing tightens, the sights narrow, and at one key moment, as the neighbors carry the IRA neighbor down the street in a pine box, a suddenly clairvoyant (and increasingly steely) Benninghofen repeats his pat comical expression, (“a darling funeral, a darling funeral”)—but now, correctly, no one is laughing.
Juno and the Paycock is a sober, haunting choice for Dowling’s last directorial effort at the Guthrie before stepping down from his position. When the door slams and the cast emerges for a bow, few won’t stand and clap. They might, though, take at least ’til the escalator to figure out what they just saw.