Theater Review: ‘Juno and the Paycock’

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By Laura Eggleston, Theater Reviewer (Photos courtesy of Guthrie Theater)

Juno And The Paycock, which opened recently at the Guthrie Theater, marks Joe Dowling’s last endeavor as Artistic Director after twenty years in his position. It’s a personal and symbolic choice for his exit production, as it’s the same play that initially brought him from Dublin to the United States and to eventually settle in Minneapolis.

The play is set against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War in Dublin, where Juno–her nickname deriving from the month of June because of the significant events in her life that coincidentally took place in that month–and her family live in extreme poverty. She holds everyone together against the odds; her husband, the “Captain” Jack Boyle is a notorious, selfish-but-charming drunk, her daughter, Mary, is preoccupied, and her son, Johnny, is disabled and haunted by his actions as part of the IRA. Their circumstances seem unrelentingly bleak until they receive news of a sizeable inheritance. Although most of the family reacts in the same way–with relief that they might finally be able to leave and start a new life somewhere else–they opt to stay put and begin a more extravagant lifestyle with the promise of enhanced cash flow.

PullquoteDowling has remarked on the “Irish-ness” of Juno And The Paycock, noting that the core theme of rising above adversity is handled by playwright Sean O’Casey “in a very, very Irish way of depicting that on stage and not making it depressing” (mprnews.org). In many ways, this feels like a story that is best told by Irish actors, and Dowling made the prudent choice to bring three performers from overseas to take on the roles of Juno, Jack, and Mrs. Tancred (whose comparatively short time on stage sticks with me as the most impactful moment of the entire production.)

O’Casey has written a play with profound and authentic pathos and in general, the actors in this production rise to the occasion. While the strongest performances are given by the Irish out-of-towners, the supporting cast does not disappoint. In particular, Katie Kleiger’s Mary is equal parts tough and heartbreaking. As Jack’s drinking mate Joxer, Mark Benninghofen’s playful energy and comedic timing are a joy to watch, and ultimately make the final moments of the play all the more resonant.

The set is beautifully constructed, but feels too expansive to create the feeling of real destitution at the outset, which became problematic when news of the inheritance elicited such extreme expressions of relief from the family. A smaller, more cramped space might have helped to highlight the change in economic status, which is a significant part of the storyline.

Juno And The Paycock is not a fast-moving piece, but it manages to pair moments of hilarity and wit alongside brutal devastation, which keeps the play emotionally engaging. It’s no wonder Mr. Dowling loves the play, and he has directed a successful, poignant production of it which brings the audience a taste of Irish history, culture, and the fight for survival that typifies the era.

Juno And The Paycock plays at the Guthrie Theater through June 28th. For tickets, visit GuthrieTheater.org.

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