NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. – Sean O’Casey’s mesmerizing and heart-wrenching play, “Juno and the Paycock,” probably won’t cause riots in the streets of this historic village or mimic the arguments and rifts that plagued Dublin’s Abbey Theatre artistic directors Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats – like the story did when it bowed back in the 1920s.
But the story – one third of O’Casey’s “tenement trilogy” that included “The Shadow of a Gunman” and “The Plough and the Stars,” can still bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye.
The Shaw Festival’s “Juno” does both of those things in abundance in a production directed by Irish-born Jackie Maxwell, whose theatrical bucket list has long included a wish to bring the tragicomic play to a Niagara-on-the-Lake stage. She has done a superb job in doing so, mounting the complex and sad tale of the life and times of blowhard, pint-loving Captain Jack Boyle and his long-suffering and heroic wife, Juno; fellow sot Joxer Daly; a son, a daughter, some fair-weather friends and a parade of neighbors.
The story is one of misery and warmth, tiny triumphs and big heartbreak, laughter and lies. Playwright O’Casey said “That’s the Irish people all over. They treat a joke as a serious thing and a serious thing as a joke” - a trait that even Juno, part-saint, part-tyrant, repeatedly learns about life with Captain Jack. Some funny stuff gets old real fast.
The Captain has an aversion to work. “Me legs! Me legs!” he hollers in pain when a job possibility is mentioned. He’s a one-time sailor whose sea exploits are questionable, but down at Foley’s or Ryan’s, Jack regales all with tales of far-off, exotic lands and leads a drunken chorus in song before staggering home, the ingratiating Joxer in tow. Juno, meanwhile, has her hands full keeping things together. Son Johnny, maimed from the “Irish troubles,” lives at home and jumps at every door rap or car backfire. Daughter Mary is restless and anxious to leave. Money is scarce, food meager.
When Jack gets a windfall – a wealthy cousin leaves him considerable cash - Juno finally sees daylight. The will’s small print and a barrister’s oversight soon dash her hopes. Johnny’s military loyalties or lack of, catch up with him. Mary gets into a different sort of trouble. New furniture is repossessed. Jack and Joxer seek comfort at Foley’s. Juno is left to utter a heartbreaking plea: “Sacred heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh.” The last few minutes of “Juno and the Paycock” are devastatingly sad, the Boyle family history now, Jack and Joxer are obliviously soused. In the morning, they’ll learn of life-changing events. The hush of the audience at the smallish Royal George Theatre – practically in the Boyle’s parlor – is deafening.
It has been noted that O’Casey never fully appreciated the power of his “Juno.”
I offer that Maxwell’s interpretation would have made him a believer.
The cast is faultless. Mary Haney, in her 28th Shaw Festival season, is wondrous as Juno, so strong, so right, a perfect survivor. Jim Mezon, in his 30th Shaw season, excels as the bragging and boozing, strutting Captain Jack, like Benedict Campbell’s Joxer, a fool but not a rogue. They are two exceptionally complete portrayals. Fine others include Andrew Bunker, Charlie Gallant, Marla McLean, Gord Rand and Corrine Koslo. Donna Belleville and Jennifer Phipps also have key roles.
“Juno and the Paycock,” Irish internecine struggles taken from the streets and squares into a living room and a kitchen by O’Casey, is a penetrating, universal look at politics, mistrust, bloodshed and family strife. Human nature explored.