To understand Juno and the Paycock, and the masterful production it’s getting from the Washington Shakespeare Company, imagine Laurel and Hardy in Beirut. Imagine Ralph Kramden meeting Moammar al-Gaddhafi, or Fred Flintstone at the moment the comet hits, or anything, really, by Brendan Behan. Sean O’Casey creates – and WSC delivers – an uproarious domestic comedy, but instead of a punch line, it delivers a sucker-punch to the gut, which lets in all the cold sad air of the real world.
The story begins with a standard comic triad – the bellicose, work-shirking windbag ( “Captain” Jack Boyle, played by Joe Palka), his moronic sidekick ( Joxer Daly, played by Christopher Henley), and his tough-as-nails wife (Juno, as portrayed by Cam Magee), who calls him on his stuff. You’ve seen them before – Ralph, Norton and Alice; Kingfish, Andy and Sapphire; Fred, Barney and Wilma – but O’Casey’s story predated all of theirs, and showed them how it’s done.
Then the play gives its principals a standard comic setup – in this case, that the Captain, after a lifetime dedicated to the avoidance of work, stands to inherit a fortune from a relative he barely knew. But instead of the prototypical sentimental comic conclusion, in which the characters become rich in wisdom though they remain financially impoverished, O’Casey lets us know what really happens when dreams lie dead upon the floor.
The real world creeps insistently into O’Casey’s comedy. It is 1922, and Ireland is in a nasty little civil war, between those who would accept the terms proffered by Great Britain for independence and those who would not. (O’Casey’s audiences would have recognized the political setting immediately, but we have the benefit of Director Shirley Serotsky’s excellent program notes.) There is evidence of it everywhere; Jack and Juno’s belligerent, ghost-drunk son Johnny (Jay Hardee) has been grievously wounded in the fighting, and in the second Act, we see a grief-addled mother (Rebecca A. Herron) prepare for her son’s funeral procession.
War’s second cousin, poverty, is also much in display, and O’Casey shows it primarily in the way it pinches relationships. Thus Joxer lavishes fulsome praise on his old friend Jack, but is not above stealing a bottle of Stout when no one is looking, and Mrs. Madigan (Kathleen Akerley) is pleased to drink and sing with the Boyle family, but when Jack is slow to repay a loan, she thinks nothing of walking out with the Captain’s gramophone. The Boyle family adores Charles Bentham (Colin Smith), the schoolteacher and aspiring solicitor who brings them news about the inheritance, notwithstanding that his only virtue appears to be his proximity to money. Jack and Juno’s daughter Mary (Melissa Marie Hmelnicky) is soon engaged to Bentham, throwing over the honest (though rough) Jerry Devine (Sam McMenamin) in the process.
It is extraordinarily difficult to do a play like this, where virtually every character must wear both the mask of comedy and of drama, sometimes simultaneously. The only way to do it is straight on, with absolute authenticity, making your character big enough to hold in all the contradictions that real people carry with them through everyday life.
I will say without hesitation that this is the best I have ever seen Palka, Magee, Hardee and Henley; they are all wonderful, and Magee is a stone marvel. Juno is a hard woman, who nonetheless bleeds compassion and whose wisecracks are full of wisdom, and Magee gets it all. Henley’s character is the most cartoonish in the play, and Henley imbues him with a slapstick physicality. But he gives us something more, too. Though his comic timing is superb, Henley also makes us realize that Joxer is not a good man, so that we understand why Juno detests him.
Palka could have treated Jack as a stock character – he is a stock character, for reasons previously discussed – but he does not, constantly adding little bits to individualize the Captain. And Hardee, whose character is the only unambiguously dramatic one in the play, gives a fine, layered, unmannered performance which makes us fear Johnny and fear for him.
This is not to suggest, though, that excellence was confined to those four actors. There is not a false characterization in this production, nor even a false line – at least not in the show I saw. The entire production is buttered with authenticity, including Jessica Moretti’s excellent set and Chelsey Schuller’s fabulous costumes. One of the most telling moments is when family and friends get together to sing, just before they are startled by the bereaved mother. The singing is awful – as it is in my house, and probably in yours, under similar circumstances.
I don’t know what director Serotsky did to achieve such a fine production. But whatever it was, she should keep doing it.
Juno and the Paycock
By Sean O’Casey
Directed by Shirley Serotsky
Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
2 hrs, 20 minutes, with one intermission
Brad Hathaway . Mt. Vernon Gazette\