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Juno and the Paycock — Shaw Festival — Royal George Theatre

Shaw_Juno_WebGallery4Jackie Maxwell’s production of “Juno and the Paycock” for the Shaw Festival is more than a sum of its parts. It’s a careful and seamless blending of episodes Sean O’Casey writes in different tones and which depict differing states of fortune. It also deals beautifully with a blatant and amusing comedy turning serious and tragic as politics and the vicissitudes of life encroach.

When we meet Juno Boyle, she is like a sitcom wife badgering her unwilling husband, Captain Jack Boyle, to find work that will supplement the income she brings in from a job to which she is chronically late from having to watch the Captain and make sure he isn’t squandering their limited means by treating himself and his even more useless friend, Joxer Daly, to drinks at the local snug.

Juno, as portrayed by the estimable Mary Haney, looks as if she has all the weight of the world on her. She seems tired of and from everything, such as keeping Jack from being ruinously feckless and holding her home and family together under trying conditions.

Time and practice have given Juno a shrewd tongue she doesn’t hesitate to use to castigate Jack and the more reprobate Joxer, to and about whom she can be unmerciful. Once again in sitcom style, Juno only has to look at Jack or Joxer to turn them into fearful, gibbering children ready at an instant to hastily hide stout bottles and glasses or jump perilously out of her sight. The joke is the fear is short-lived. When Juno has, at last, to go to work or tend to other business, Jack and Joxer are as merrily mischievous as toddlers by a mud puddle.

Common sense and a different kind of criticism emanate from the Boyles’ daughter, Mary, a pert and informed woman who is about to be engaged to a promising young man. A dark, brooding mood is set by the Boyles’ son, Johnny, who injured his hip in Ireland’s 1916 Easter rebellion and later lost his left arm in a partisan battle on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Ireland’s “troubles” will be a leitmotif throughout “Juno and the Paycock,” and Johnny’s brand of spoiled self-pity when dealing with his mother and sister, and disdain when approaching his father, will have consequences that color O’Casey’s play and Maxwell’s production.

The Boyles’ two-room flat, in a Dublin tenement where Joxer and other characters also reside, is a busy place. Juno and Mary are constantly coming and going. Jack and Joxer find refuge there, or beat retreat, depending on Juno’s whereabouts. Johnny is a haunting presence who spends most of his time in an unseen room but always makes you aware he is hovering about, hearing Jack and Joxer’s revels, and witnessing Jack and Juno’s rows. He tends to reserve comment on most matters, but when he speaks, his tone leans toward the superior, cynical, and moralistic.

The Boyle home is like the Kramden apartment with grown children about. Juno is as caustic and biting as Alice. Jack can be as foolish and irresponsible as Ralph, with the added trait of being chronically unemployed.

Juno finds him work. So does the local priest, who sends Mary’s fiancé, Jerry Devine, to the Boyle residence to tell Jack to report to a work site and mention his name. At the thought of labor, let alone the sure prospect of it, Jack has severe leg cramps that surely will prevent him fulfilling his duties and doing the priest, or anyone who recommends him, much credit. Jim Mezon has some wonderfully comic moments playing the hobbled Captain when the mention of gainful employment triggers his affliction.

A sitcom. But one Maxwell deftly sows with subtle hints of what’s to come. More than O’Casey, who of course foreshadows his intentions, Maxwell uses character traits, and characters’ reactions to each other, to establish a picture that goes beyond dialogue. She endows her production with texture that will turn it from a fast, insult-fraught series of humorous, if bitter, line exchanges to a poignant portrait of a family, and particularly, of a woman, who face all life can throw at them and have to consider their own individual courses of commitment, safety, mutual regard, and self-worth as they endure ever more of the buffeting that has marked their existence for years.

Best of all, Maxwell will work this magic, create this transition that gives O’Casey’s classic play majesty directors rarely muster, without you noticing her handiwork until it achieves its cumulative effect. She keeps “Juno and the Paycock,” a light, bickering entertainment while providing enough sly theatrical touches to make it plausible and moving when laughs, scoldings, off-hand comments, and pointed barbs give way to genuine shocks that illustrate the mercilessness of life, as well as the strictness of the time, Ireland in 1922, and the rigidity of the social and religious mores in, and within, the Boyles have little choice but to live.

Maxwell’s atmospheric production leads to depth and understanding of the human condition, even as lived by some characters, such as Jack and Joxer, who roll with every punch and laugh off the direst adversity. It builds cunningly to changes in mood and situation rather than abruptly springing surprises on its audience, as if the Boyles led three different lives in three separate shows instead of one continuous life in one sweeping play. It avoids melodrama by intelligently and affectingly illustrating the serial and simultaneous triumphs and disappointments of the Boyle family, both the ones they bring upon themselves as individuals and the ones that derive from strong outer forces. “Juno and the Paycock” is not a tragedy, but Maxwell and her marvelous cast give it the power and passion of one by exuding the sadness and demoralizing nature of reality. This is a production that makes you pause before applauding at the final curtain because you need all you see and feel to settle in and to appreciate the full effect of a strong theatrical experience.

“Juno and the Paycock” starts like many a comedy, particularly Irish comedies. A middle-aged husband and wife hurl taunts at each other. Being Irish, each is eloquent, with a colorful, expressive vocabulary that can cut, parry, and land a decisive blow. Jack, who earned his Captain’s title during pre-World War I service, is a genteel wastrel who likes to preen and parade his one-time military rank about his Dublin neighborhood although he is down on his financial luck and spends most of his days drinking. Picture an early Barry Fitzgerald character, and know Fitzgerald played Jack in an early production.

Jack sets about saying, “Listen to the mouth on that one” when Juno or Mary carp, and crying, “Ooh, me leg, I can feel it flaring up grand now,” when employment is suggested, while Juno rattles off a choice skein of insults that amount to “you good-for-nothing lout of a lazy, drunken bum” while complaining that she alone makes sure her family eats, gets medical care, and has a few basic pleasures like a fire in the stove, a bottle of stout, and tea ready on the hob.

Thinking about Maxwell’s production in retrospect, by way of examining why it becomes so effective, you see how Mary Haney not only shows the cares Juno carries with her but gives signs of the character’s attitude towards Jack.

She’s his wife. She loves him. She remembers good times with him and his more responsible days. She also shows weariness with his dodges and excuses. Jack’s lying, especially about the time Juno knows he spends with Joxer, has irritated her deepest nerve. Love has been replaced by tolerance and, perhaps, a sense of duty, or even of habit. She’ll prepare Jack’s breakfast, but she won’t beg him to eat it. When he pretends he doesn’t appreciate Juno’s cooking and acts as if he’s not hungry, she’ll just put the meal away and tell him he can heat it later if he gets an appetite and the gumption to tote the food to the stove. Mezon’s Jack is playing a game. Haney’s Juno is not. You see she’s doing the appropriate thing, but her heart no longer yearns for Jack to follow suit. He can starve for all she cares. She’s done her best not to have that happen, but if Jack is resistant, Juno can shrug it off. Love has become a habit, not a feeling, and Haney expresses that sentiment well while Mezon’s Jack carries on with bluff and bravado he thinks amuses Juno on some level as a part of their general routine.

Jack has missed Juno’s signals. The audience hasn’t, but it is not clear yet what her resignation to Jack being a burden signifies. That remains for Maxwell and Haney to develop.

Mary’s relationship with Jerry also seems routine, albeit in a more cordial way. They have been a couple for so long a while, you get the sense they take each for granted. Jerry has recently attained a position that will give them the wherewithal to marry. Mary accepts this news matter-of-factly. Their wedding is a forgone conclusion to all concerned. The entire tenement expects it. Mary and Jerry behave towards each other with an ease that illustrates their ongoing understanding. They’re almost like an old married pair. There’s no romance or surge of emotion. There’s not even much warmth, just as easy steadiness. Everything is everyday. Mary and Jerry are destined to be betrothed. Ho hum, from the looks of it.

Johnny has more than disdain to animate him. The morning paper tells of a young man he knows who has been found shot seven times, obviously murdered by a cadre of young Irish fighters who accused him of betrayal to their cause or for belonging to a rival brigade. Jack sympathizes by mentioning Johnny was close to slain youth, but Johnny denies it and denigrates the murder victim.

Joxer Daly also shows true colors. Though he seems to be another sort of Barry Fitzgerald character, the one who is always happy-go-lucky and never worries about his poverty or health when a pint is nearby and light-hearted joshing can ensue, Benedict Campbell’s Joxer reveals a duplicitous side. You can see he may be a fair-weather friend who is on a fellow’s side when that fellow is in favor with the world, even Joxer’s small, undemanding world, but apt to turn on a guy if his luck changes.

See what I mean. Maxwell and company have entertained comically and spiritedly within the parameters of O’Casey’s script, but they’ve gone beyond those parameters to provide texture that informs the complex events to come and make “Juno and the Paycock” a living drama that transcends words on a page, as theater should. From the lead performances of Haney, Mezon, and Campbell to the smallest utilitarian turns by Kenton Blythe and Travis Seetoo as IRA soldiers, Maxwell’s cast finds a way to sharply define its characters in ways that go beyond type or facile line delivery. This attention to detail makes ordinary scenes, like the Boyles’ feuding and a gathering of their friends, lively while making difficult emotional sequences more stirring and heartbreaking.

The mentioned gathering is a great example of how to make a complex scene resonate.

Just as Juno Boyle is at wit’s end about how to keep tea on the fire and food on her table, a young lawyer visits to inform Jack his uncle passed and left him a rather generous legacy that amounts to several years worth of decent wages.

The Boyles don’t go too wild, but they do celebrate. Juno replaces the dreary and shabby furnishings in the flat with handsomely bright new sofas and chairs. A sideboard makes an appearance. A sorry teapot morphs into a shiny new one with a silver kettle for heating the water.

Naturally, Jack treats himself to fine liquor and some good cigars. Juno does not begrudge these. Jack may have been a tad extravagant while Juno remained practical, but all can be afforded with the bounty to come.

Upon news of the Boyles’ good fortune, the family receives unexpected guests from the tenement and beyond. The Boyle flat is no longer dark or meager. Folks want to share in their luck, and the Boyles are happy to have them. Juno doesn’t even mind Joxer coming to join the fun.

Scenes of group conversation are tricky to write and trickier to play. O’Casey has to keep the dialogue interesting to the point the audience doesn’t mind listening to it. Maxwell and her cast have to pace the proceedings so they don’t become dull or old hat.

The Shaw company, using timing to get the most from their lines and characterizations, admirably demonstrate how a keep a big, sprawling scene like this animated and informative. You revel in the characters’ good time while appreciating how Maxwell keeps moving O’Casey’s play forward, even though it seems to be at a plateau.

For one thing, you see the contrast between the way characters acted toward the Boyles before they became heirs and the way they behave towards them once they are in the chips.

Donna Belleville, playing a neighbor given to gossip and taking in the squalor of the Boyle digs, becomes grand and complimentary. Others are curious to see Juno’s new furniture.

For Juno, the found money generates a new lightness. Haney’s Juno cannot totally shake her cares, but her family is provided for, and her home is decorated as she would prefer it, and that adds a beat to her step and makes her face softer and less harried-looking.

The Boyles are providing their friends and neighbors a night out, but things are going on the background. Mary, for instance, is taken by the lawyer who brings Jack news of his inheritance. The lawyer, played with charm by Gord Rand, responds to her interest and sees the potential in Mary. Jack, of course, is having the time of his life being a grand host and having the comforts of the local snug in his own front room.

All is not rosy. To the Boyle door comes the mother of the young man slain by partisans in the Dublin streets. To Maxwell’s credit, this visit does not put a total pall on the Boyle party, but it does add a solemn note and reminds that while Juno and Jack can enjoy their bounty, others are affected by the violent politics of the time. More disastrously, even, than Johnny was.

Jennifer Phipps, a revered veteran of more than 40 Shaw seasons, give a marvelous and touching speech, a benediction of a kind, to her son and his fatal commitment to a cause. Phipps is serious but keeps a smile on her face as if she needs to speak well of her boy but doesn’t want to darken the Boyles’ festivities. The way she balances the two moods of the sequence is masterful.

Later, a funeral procession bringing the fallen soldier to his burial place passes the Boyle window and creates a serious respectful moment while not fully interrupting the merriment of the Boyles or their guests. Johnny, though, has a revelatory passage in which he once again denies being a friend to the slain boy and even declares the lad may have deserved the punishment he received.

Charlie Gallant, as Johnny, manages to put a chill in the Dublin night Phipps’s visit and the funeral cortege could not.

The Boyles do not remain immune from hardship too long. Complications regarding the wording of the uncle’s will delays the expected legacy in ways that only happen in plays, but the setback is enough to renew Juno’s constant worry about making ends meet. Realities of life affect Mary and Johnny. The parochial nature of 1922 Ireland impinges, especially as Mary is affected. Juno has as many cares as ever, and the new dilemmas are harder to bear than figuring out how to provide and food and make Jack behave.

Jack is fairly unaffected by the turnabout in his fortune. His bravado is not a mask. It’s an ironclad shield that protects him from all blows and buffets. Or at least lets him ignore them in benighted bliss.

Maxwell’s production makes this cave-in devastating. Mary Haney, excellent as Juno from Minute One, makes you see more clearly and more piteously what this woman has endured and how much strength is left in her despite the way in which Juno plainly reflects her defeats in her posture and facial expression.

Even as you understand all that happens, and see some inevitability in events, especially those concerning Johnny, the toll on the Boyles makes you doleful. O’Casey’s comedy has become dark and mournful even though you know Juno will plow on and survive her calamitous situation, and Jack will continue to be comic, but now pathetically comic, in his foolishness.

I have seen “Juno and the Paycock” about a dozen times. I’ve also seen the musical adaptation, “Juno.” It has never moved me so much. Jackie Maxwell and the Shaw company demonstrate on stage what makes Sean O’Casey’s play a lasting classic. The poignancy of the production remains with me days after the curtain at the Shaw’s Royal George Theatre fell.

Mary Haney is outstanding as Juno Boyle. She starts the show with vinegar in her words and in every look she aims towards Jack and Joxer,

Haney’s Juno is above all a survivor. You can see in her shoulders she is fed up and weary from calculating how to get through one more day. Yet she leans forward into the wind and sets out to tackle any happenstance with all the vigor left in her.

Juno may not be as quick as Jack with a retort, but Haney, delivering her lines, spares no feelings in saying what she thinks about her husband and his companion. She also shows you Juno’s competence by being deft at juggling various pans, tea paraphernalia, and stout bottles as she prepares to confront Jack and then go off to earn the family living.

Haney doesn’t soften as much as she lets Juno take a rest and bask in the one period of relative luxury in her life when money briefly ceases to be an issue. The actress is keen about showing more tolerance towards Jack, and indulging him more, but she lets you see her easier life has not restored her affection or respect for her husband. It’s just more comfortable to live with him, separation never being a primary option in 1922 Ireland.

In the final act, when the Boyles once more face reality square on, Haney shows her mettle as an affecting actress and Juno’s as a woman who knows her mind and her priorities.

The profound sadness Maxwell’s “Juno and the Paycock” conveys emanates from Mary Haney’s heart-rending appearance and exquisitely delivered speech as Juno determines what she must do next to maintain her dignity and make her days on Earth count for something.

Haney is both a spent shell of a woman, grappling with situations that would baffle someone with more material resources than Juno, and a person of strength and character who may not overcome the adversity and difficulties she faces but will meet all challenges, and challengers, head on and turn her hurt and anger into action that will meet her needs, and Mary’s, and might possibly be fulfilling.

Haney’s Juno doesn’t ask for sympathy or look as if she would accept it if you gave it to her. Looking once again worn, she retains her determination, her ability to take things as they come, and the will to make matters better.

Juno may never triumph over hardship, but she won’t be daunted or stagnated by it either. Haney creates the figure of a woman whose tragedy and clear grasp of unrelentingly harsh reality is tempered with the optimism of someone who is willing to make do with the pennies and the joy she can muster. We feel for this Juno because we know she is too good and too fit to have to cope with so much misery when a smile, a kind word, and enough for some tea and sausage would be enough to buoy her.

Jim Mezon is a tyro as Captain Jack Boyle. As taut and intense as Juno is, Mezon’s Captain cannot be unnerved of deflated. He is a roaring presence, a man who gives in to flashes of temper and who stands behind conventional morality even when he is too lazy and feckless to stand on his own two feet, but also a man who can shrug off any dilemma and pretend that all is going swimmingly as the roof falls in around him.

Mezon’s Jack is all swagger and blather. He can spar with Juno, but he can’t dominate her, and he can’t fend with basic existence without her.

That doesn’t stop Jack from opposing Juno at every turn and being stubborn for its own sake when Juno makes a legitimate request, like asking Jack to report for a job the parish priest has already secured for him.

Jack knows what he wants, to be at leisure to have a good time with Joxer and with mates with whom he can boast about his days in the military. A case of stout and a breakfast that awaits his willingness to eat it suit him just fine. He knows Juno won’t let the cupboard remain empty or the tea go unreplenished.

Jack, in his own way, is as spoiled and indulged as his injured son, Johnny. Juno calls him a “paycock” (read “peacock), and Mezon puts muscle and joviality is Jack’s preening stride. He is a man who can entertain with a good story, or stake you to a stout or six — He even shares his breakfast with Joxer, albeit in a stingy way. — but who doesn’t have one serious bone in his body or the humility to be grateful to Juno and his daughter, Mary, for letting him get by so effortlessly.

Mezon’s Jack is not that much different as a man living in fear his supply of stout will run out and a man who can supply bonded whiskey to an assembly of his neighbors. He is jocular and social, as “hail fellow, well met” as you’ll find on the streets of Dublin. He is a liberal soul who turns his good fellowship to generosity when he has some money to spend. Jack is a good guy, but a useless one. And not a particularly good husband or father.

Jack’s family is no more to him that anyone else. He treats all equally, mostly with a mind to being thought a sport and to advancing his love for carousing and being among people.

Jack doesn’t react when his fortunes change. Naturally, he celebrates his inheritance, but only by accentuating the sociable traits we’ve seen already. The difference is he doesn’t have Juno harping on him to find work or to shed the parasite, Joxer.

The problem is Jack has no depth and no character. Mezon makes that clear by keeping Jack a consistent cock of the walk who makes a game of his marital tussles with Juno, whether a game is called for or not, and takes an unsuitably moralistic attitude when called upon to support someone dear to him in a time of trouble.

Mezon shows Jack being disappointed and even momentarily abashed, but he never lets Jack’s spirits flag or gives any inkling Jack is willing to shoulder responsibility and do his share in staving off hunger and other adversity.

Mezon’s performance is grand for its consistency and its size. His Captain fills the stage. He is a congenial host in good times and bad. But that is all he is. A man with nothing but ostentatious bravado. A man who approaches life on his own terms even when those terms are unrealistic and potentially catastrophic. A man who can’t stand by people he should be protecting and defending. A man who doesn’t deserve a tenth of the benevolence you’d wish for Juno but who will be content anyhow because he doesn’t know any better and can’t be made to deal with truth.

Benedict Campbell’s Joxer Daly is the perfect companion for Jack and the perfect foil to Juno.

This Joxer is even more oblivious than Jack. Captain Boyle can pretend to grandeur and some military achievement. Joxer is a hanger-on who doesn’t have a wife, or priest, to nag him to work and who has no intention of setting himself to anything useful.

Campbell keeps Joxer’s eyes bright but glassy. He is a man who drinks more than Jack but hasn’t paid for a pint since St. Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland’s soil.

For all his nonchalant neediness, Joxer can be petty and sensitive. He is ready to cut Jack over some minor slight but finds forgiveness in his soul when Jack looks to be the heir to a decent bequest.

Charlie Gallant is a bitter and intense Johnny. He takes pride the fighting that led to his disabilities but, for all that, resents his dodgy hip and missing left arm.

Johnny spends his days grousing, glowering, and griping. He may show deference or even begrudging respect and affection to Juno, but in general, Johnny looks like a man who will while away his days sour with regret, intent on making anyone around him as miserable as he is.

Johnny may not contribute much, but he is quick to criticize or comment on the behavior of everyone else in the Boyle home and the family’s neighborhood. Gallant plays Johnny’s anger and disdain well. He has enough dash to make you worry for him even though Gallant endows him with little warmth or charm.

Marla McLean’s Mary is the most rounded of the Boyles. McLean shows her character’s spunk as a recent graduate who will soon be married and have a life away from her family.

Mary is intelligent and the most aware of the Boyles in terms of modern trends and local politics. McLean conveys Mary’s spirited normality and lets you see her as a young woman with a shrewd head on the shoulders, one who get along with her family but who has no qualms about speaking her mind and who has a touch of superiority from being the most worldly member of her clan.

Mary has some important scenes that involve two beaux and a dilemma of an epic nature for the time and place in which she lives. McLean plays all aspects of the role admirably and elicits empathy for Mary, even when she is breaking a heart.

Gord Rand uses his part as the lawyer who brings the Boyles news of their inheritance to demonstrate the difference between an up-and-coming young man of the city and the more downcast and less ambitious denizens of the Boyles’ tenement.

Andrew Bunker displays welcome sincerity as Mary’s fiancé and faithful suitor, Jerry Devine. A critical scene between Jerry and Mary takes on extra significance and depth because of how movingly Bunker and McLean play it.

Lorne Kennedy has nice, if brief, comic turn as a pesky, unimpressed neighbor of the Boyles. Donna Belleville is entertaining as newsy inhabitant of the tenement. Jennifer Phipps grabs attention and touches hearts as the mother of a slain partisan.

Set designer Peter Hartwell sets the tone with the various looks he gives the Boyle flat, the bleakness and shabby pieces that betoken poverty giving way to the simple elegance with which Juno decorates when cash seems imminent. Hartwell also does well with the costumes, especially for Johnny and Mary.

Paul Sportelli’s original music is ominous and dirgelike throughout. It establishes and maintains the tone for Maxwell’s production. Bonnie Beecher’s lighting design brings out the grayness of the Boyles’ existence and becomes noticeably cheerier when plumier times arrive.

“Juno and the Paycock” runs through Sunday, October 12, at the Royal George Theatre of the Shaw Festival, 85 Queen Street (between Regent and Victoria), in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Showtimes vary weekly but can be on any Tuesday through Sunday at 2 or 8 p.m. Tickets range from $113 to $52 CDN and can be obtained by calling 1-800-511-SHAW (1-800-511-7429) or by going online to http://www.shawfest.com.

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