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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Juno and the Paycock — Irish Heritage Theatre at Plays & Players

juno kirsten interiorSean O’Casey cleverly weaves three themes in this play that can emphasize any one of them or blend them together. Peggy Mecham’s pleasing and entertaining production of “Juno and the Paycock” touches thoughtfully on the Irish war for independence, several scenes ending with a long focus on Johnny Boyle, who has taken a crippling bullet to the hip and had an arm shattered in the struggle, and pays attention to the challenge Juno Boyle faces in trying to keep her household in food, tea, and turf, but it registers most as a comedy. Albeit one at which you’re often laughing with a lump in your throat.

Ethan Lipkin, as “Captain” Jack Boyle, whose military title may be more facetious than earned, and John Cannon, as the cadging, gossipy no-account Joxer Daly, see to that. Kirsten Quinn does an effective, affecting job showing Juno’s various burdens, from managing a shiftless husband, who would rather strut through Dublin like a “paycock” than shoulder responsibility, to dealing with worrisome crises involving her home and her children, and Kevin Rodden reveals Johnny’s persistent nervous angst to an extent that says you must fear for him, but Lipkin and Cannon dominate the production as a pair of feckless bounders whose lives revolve around stout, naps, and acting as if they are the leisurely princes of mankind. To borrow a word Cannon’s Joxer bandies about to connote anything from a hat to a fried egg, Lipkin and Cannon’s performances are “darlin’, just darlin’.”

Lipkin shows you Jack Boyle’s character right off the bat. After gamboling about the Boyles’ all-purpose kitchen and living room in a jig that shows how plaguing pains in his legs are relieved and he is suited for work, word comes from Jerry Devine that the parish priest, Father Farrell, has secured Jack a job that will last him for months at a new construction site. Upon hearing the good news, Jack, who has been regaling Juno and Joxer with evidence of his robust health, reaches in desperation for a chair claiming the arthritis is his right hip has flared once more, and he can barely stand let alone climb a ladder or help dig a drainage ditch. “Even if I managed to get up the ladder,” Jack tells the assembled, “it would take all the other workmen to hoist me back down.”

Of course, the gambit and words are O’Casey’s, but Lipkin plays them in a way that clearly illustrates Jack’s aversion to work and all things that don’t involve fermented grain or a mattress. Throughout Mecham’s production, Lipkin will deliver Jack’s lines crisply while extracting full comic mileage. Having words is, after, Jack’s main activity. He will comment on many subjects, at times getting hot under the collar — even though his shirts rarely have collars — and standing his ground as a man in his castle, but Jack is all bluster and posturing. Anything substantive has to be done or borne by Juno, and Quinn, while sometimes showing how Juno can’t help but be amused by Jack, poignantly conveys by slumped shoulder, and the blank, perplexed expression of the overwhelmed, the cost of addressing the dilemmas of a troubled family on her own. Jack will test Juno’s patience once too often, and O’Casey’s comedy turns dark as the Boyle children, Johnny and Mary, are affected by the times in which they live, but Lipkin is always a figure of oblivious cheer and defiance to a world that threatens to strike him down. His relentlessness in just going on, his lone stance of any substance being a declaration of conventional morality that robs him of his family, adds texture to the basic comic tone of Mecham’s staging. Lipkin’s Jack may not be openly affected by all that happens to him, but the Irish Heritage audiences knows and can feel the toll.

Cannon abets Lipkin comic note for comic note, playing a great Gallagher to his Sheen yet giving Joxer a droll dryness that serves the character well in a scene in which he gossips about the Boyles with more than a small note of Schadenfreude viciousness. Cannon plays Joxer as a quiet but apt companion who shares Jack’s aversion to work and enjoys cadging drinks or a meal wherever he can find it. Together, Lipkin and Cannon show why Jack and Joxer are two of the most beloved characters in Irish literature. Lipkin is particularly Falstaffian in his turn for Irish Heritage.

NealBoxAngelique Bouffiou as Maisie Madigan, a neighbor in the Dublin tenement where the Boyles and Joxer live, contributes to the comic spirit of Mecham’s Juno while also serving as a bridge to the more serious aspects of O’Casey’s play by being the one who reveals some of the talk about Johnny Boyle’s involvement in exposing a fellow IRA partisan to danger and who reports on the inconsolable grief the slain man’s mother, Mrs. Tancred, feels at his killing. Mrs. Tancred, played by Jackie Gordon, will eloquently express herself when she visits the Boyles as they are celebrating a rare bit of good luck occasioned by Jack believing he will receive a handsome inheritance. Mrs. Tancred’s appearance severely alters the jauntiness that marks Mecham’s production. Nothing can be looked at the same as you realize all that is happening beyond the walls of the Boyle flat. The Irish conflagration leaves no family untouched, and the plight of the Boyles, whether they are living hand-to-mouth or flush, pales next to that larger story that also brings O’Casey’s plot thread involving Johnny into focus.

The Irish Heritage production never reaches the dramatic heights or sense of misfortune to offset the comedy it favors — You never feels as if you’re watching a comedy turned tragic. — but its handling of IRA doings and a plot involving the Boyle daughter, Mary, simmer matters long and solemnly enough to give it perspective and let you see O’Casey shadings. Mecham and cast provide a good, defined reading of O’Casey’s play, and the sadder, more intense section do come through and have their effect.

Lipkin’s vibrant Jack dominates this production, but Kirsten Quinn’s put-upon Juno defines it.

Quinn is a fully-drawn Juno who is not so full or sorrows and cares that she cannot appreciate Jack’s clowning or relax when she believes the Boyle’s financial troubles are in comfortable abeyance. She expresses Juno’s love for Jack in the half-smile he gives to antics, even as she’s scolding him. Quinn’s is a Juno of many facets, and the actress lets us see who Juno might be if was not constantly beset by calamity.

Of course, she also displays the Juno who must figure out how to get a fresh supply of groceries in the Boyle household, nurse her sullen son, understand her modern, individualistic daughter, and get Jack to contribute wages to the family purse. Despair does not define Quinn’s Juno, but it shows through her resigned demeanor and is always present something in her eyes or in a tightening of her lips, even when she has license to be relatively calm or merry.

Juno is the necessary bulwark of the Boyle family, and Quinn communicates that. She also shows Juno’s basic common sense when dealing with Mary’s pregnancy out of wedlock and a quiet pain when Johnny’s IRA career comes to a predictably dismal end.

Lipkin, Cannon, and Bouffiou give Mecham’s “Juno” its spirit and tone. They provide the entertainment and do it grandly. Quinn provides the soul. It is through her, even more than the bereft Mrs. Tancred, that the total reality of life O’Casey presents, through all of his jokes and melodrama, comes to the Irish Heritage stage. The best part Quinn goes about playing Juno in a natural fashion that depicts a beleaguered woman coping through life, making do, and supplying her family’s needs. Thank goodness that life contains some joy, which Quinn also expresses well.

Kevin Rodden, sleeve of his clean, perhaps too clean, white shirt hanging down to show the damage to his arm, creates an ominous presence as Johnny. You never get to know the character. Rodden’s Johnny is too paranoid about and expectant of doom to display any kind of homelife or close relationship with his parents or sister. You are always aware of his jitteriness and his certainty his fate is sealed. Especially as Joxer and Maisie expose more and more suspicions about Johnny having a role in Tancred boy’s death.

Gina Martino is an efficient Mary. She shows you the character’s role in the family and how she worries her parents and brother with some modern, independent thinking, but you never care for Mary in a way that causes distress or heartbreak when her hopes are disrupted or her pregnancy has consequences. She becomes a cog in O’Casey’s overall story more than a figure who elicits emotion in her own right.

Jimmy Guckin is solid as Jerry Devine, the young clerk who represents the everyday man that is skirting the war and securing his future in whatever Ireland emerges by working and thinking of career rather than politics. Guckin convinces you of Jerry’s love for Mary and his sense of betrayal when he hears of her impending motherhood.

Dexter Anderson is practiced charm itself as the lawyer who proves inept, Charles Bentham. Thomas Robert Irvin is realistic and dramatically effective as Needles Nugent. Carlos Forbes and David Kuong handle a multitude of roles with precision while differentiating their various characters.

Teddy Moseanu and Peggy Mecham create a convincing Boyle flat whether it is as Spartan as the Kramdens’ apartment in “The Honeymooners” or opulently furnished when the Boyles think they’re in the chips. Sarah Ochocki’s costumes were perfect for all characters and occasions. She was especially canny in dressing Jack as both a working man and a temporary esquire.

“Juno and the Paycock, produced by Irish Heritage Theatre, runs through Saturday, October 31, at Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25, with various discounts available, and can be obtained by visiting www.irishheritagetheatre.org.

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