Juno and the Paycock, in its perfectly respectable production directed by Charlotte Moore at the Irish Rep, seems like a play whose time has passed it by. What once was no doubt a shockingly candid portrait of a working class Irish family beset by a compendium of misfortunes typical of its period—alcoholism (the father); war injury, mental and physical (the son), poverty (all), the consequences of romance not sanctioned by the marriage bed (the daughter)—and a tired but determined matriarch struggling to keep the family functioning, seems today like penny-dreadful melodrama, leavened by humor and of course the higher octane language of Sean O'Casey. Ironically, it’s one of the most highly regarded plays in Irish theatrical literature and O’Casey is widely acknowledged as the first to dramatize the life of the working class; so what we experience now as clichés and familiar tropes were in fact highly original when first ushered into the repertoire by O’Casey himself. That said, there may be another reality to consider. Perfectly respectable Ms. Moore’s production may be, but Juno and the Paycock may be the kind of tricky play that requires a very specific touch to offset what seems like transparent symbolism and melodrama. I’m put in mind of one of my favorite plays, That Championship Season, by Irish-American writer Jason Miller. Based on the recent Broadway revival, you would think it similarly dated, obvious and schematic; but I saw the original as directed by A.J. Antoon in the early 70s, and I can promise you, despite seeming on the page a straightforward example of contemporary well-made drama in the “gathering” subgenre in which booze flows and truths are revealed, the touch and sensibility needed to pull it off is very particular an not nearly as obvious to some directors as it ought to be; a newbie to the play might see a misleading rendition presented without apparent artifice and never know that he wasn’tactually seeing the play the author intended him to see. I’d never seen Juno and the Paycock before. I can believe easily that this too is one of those plays whose ideal balance of elements and sensibility is elusive.
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