del Rosso Review: The Plough and the Stars

For the Irish Repertory Theatre’s 30th Anniversary, they are celebrating with their astonishing Sean O’Casey Season,  which includes the Dublin Trilogy. The last play in the Trilogy is O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars,” a rich, complex look at the residents in a Dublin tenement set during the Easter Uprising of 1916.

Opening on the cramped living room belonging to Nora and Jack Clitheroe (Clare O’Malley and Adam Petherbridge) are O’Casey’s familiar and inevitable comings and goings of tenement life: carpenter Fluther (Michael Mellamphy), who likes a drink but not the talk of politics, is putting a lock on the door while Mrs. Coogan (Una Clancy), a nosy neighbor, bustles in and takes over, accepting the delivery of a large box on behalf of the Clitheroes, who are not on the premises. That Mrs. Coogan gossips non-stop about Nora putting on airs while opening the box and taking out a hat meant for Nora solidifies her as the person who must know everything about anyone living in the tenement. Also living in tight quarters with the Clitheroes is the elderly Uncle Peter (Robert Langdon Lloyd), who has a penchant for dressing up in Napoleonic battle garb, complete with gold sword and cornet hat; and The Young Covey (James Russell), who joins them. The Young Covey, disgusted that his job has been interrupted for a march, complains that the Labour Flag, The Plough and the Stars, is being used for political purposes.  His general disdain targets both Uncle Peter and Fluther, and he immediately insults them both for their politics and believing in the folly of religion. A row ensues. Nora finally arrives and sets everyone straight in an orderly fashion, with the exception of an interruption by another neighbor, Bessie (Maryann Plunkett), an inebriated British loyalist.  Jack, who was a former member of the Citizen Army, arrives shortly after and throws Bessie out. Once the rest of this cacophonous crowd has cleared out, the not-long married Jack and Nora have some time alone. They kiss, they bicker. Jack says he gave up the Citizen Army for Nora; she says it was because he wasn’t promoted.  Jack sings a courting song to Nora as they cozy up together on the sofa. All’s well until there is a fateful knock on the door, which Nora urges Jack to ignore. He opens the door to Captain Brennan (John Keating), who informs Jack he has become a Commandant, and must come to conduct a raid on Dublin castle. Jack balks and asks why he wasn’t told sooner, except he was. A letter was delivered weeks before that Nora burned, to keep Jack home and away from danger. Nora is unrepentant, and Jack is furious. He leaves with Captain Brennan, their parting words said in anger. Mollser (Meg Hennessy), Mrs. Coogan’s consumptive daughter, visits Nora to stave off her loneliness, but they are interrupted by the faint strains of passing soldiers singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” Bessie, still tipsy, again wanders through Nora’s open door, with a warning of what is to come. Of course, they both think she is mad. 

  The Easter Rising is the undoing of every single one of those people in that tenement. 

It’s difficult to single out one performance among this entirely remarkable ensemble, but Clare O’Malley’s radiant, increasingly desperate Nora is a standout, as is Michael Mellamphy’s simple-minded, blustering Fluther. The tenement set, reconfigured gloriously for all three plays in the Trilogy, is the work of Scenic Designer Charlie Corcoran, paired with Michael Gottlieb’s Lighting Design. The laundry hanging on lines to dry from the rafters of the theatre was a terrific detail. But bringing this sprawling play together as a cohesive whole, which is structurally the most difficult of the three, is the sure hand and light touch of director Charlotte Moore. The previous productions of “The Plough and the Stars,” the last being twenty-two years ago, were also directed by Moore. I’m grateful to have seen this version, as I’d never seen it staged before.  

   I can understand why “The Plough and the Stars” caused riots the first time it was performed, complete with an assault on the actors. O’Casey pulls no punches. Everything is fair game: religion, which he ridicules; Irish Nationalism, which is depicted by men going forth on blind faith; and rigid morality, which he sends up by putting a young prostitute, Rosie Redmond (Sarah Street) in the bar scene. When this play premiered at The Abbey Theatre in 1926, O’Casey swung for the triple, and hit a home run for offensiveness. But as a critic who looked at her companion once the play ended to find him aghast and clearly disturbed, O’Casey had it right. As we repaired to the nearest bar, I thought, whatever the reasons – right, wrong, moral, immoral – War is War is War. And War takes. In “The Plough and the Stars,” it takes the lives of innocent victims, crying out for god. It takes the men and leaves the women to care for the sick, the dying, the wounded, and fend for themselves. It takes the sanity of Nora, who we fear for. It takes their homes, and it takes their security. It takes their families.  It takes the futures of both the men and the women. And it was disturbing. Isn’t that the point, for the best theatre to provoke, to disturb the status quo? The O’Casey Season at the Irish Rep has been extended; audiences have until June 22nd to experience the magnificence of their astonishing Trilogy. Long live O’Casey for disturbing the peace. Slainte!