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The Irish tenements of the early 1920s were a close-knit and crowded place. Seated cheek-by-jowl at the Washington Shakespeare Company’s Juno and the Paycock, Sean O’Casey’s tragicomic story of a family’s demise, we feel a bit like neighbors at the window. And as we watch the pressures of poverty, civil war and simple bad luck unravel the Boyles, we see that so much of what they do and say is defined by this largely unseen cohort: the neighbors, the apparent keepers of the community values.
Part of what makes Juno so compelling is the unraveling of this perception along with the Boyles’ family unit. In such ambiguous and claustrophobic confines, it’s no wonder that Johnny, the family son, pleads desperately to go where nobody knows him.
Cohesive and nicely paced, director Shirley Serotsky gives the production a simple realism that never distracts from the ebb and flow of O’Casey’s colloquial magic. Whether engaged in the mundane or momentous, O’Casey’s characters speak to us of their lives and their culture with earthy, compelling poetry, often in counter-poise to their true hearts and nothing needs get in the way.
Juno Boyle, the family matriarch, tells her story of bitter disappointment with every verbal cannonball she lobs at her husband, yet she has bottomless tenderness for her adult children. Joxer Daly, the ne’er-do-well who circles the family like a curious, not-quite-brave-enough vulture, speaks in proverbs and the anodyne while pecking at the family’s edges. This is a play one can see again and again just to revel in the weaving of words and motive. Everyone here is trying to survive, and the adaptations are the color.
And in a piece that must carry so much in such close quarters – both emotionally and physically – the WSC has the distinct advantage of having members who often share the stage, and an artistic vision, throughout the season. Here, artistic director Christopher Henley and company member Joe Palka offer a compelling rhythm to the on-again, off-again friendship of ”Captain” Jack Boyle and his drinking-buddy Joxer, an ease that allows Henley to bring out Joxer’s watchful ambivalence and Palka Jack’s world of denial and dreams. Still, even as Palka gives Jack a credible bluster and much facility with O’Casey’s language, it is Henley who draws the eye with a wonderfully nuanced, full-bodied rendering of this increasingly complex neighborhood fixture.
Completing the triad is Cam Magee as Juno, who makes herself instantly believable as Jack’s long-suffering wife and Joxer’s nemesis. Magee gives a truly memorable performance here, with reproachful eyes in a stone-cold face, her edicts ringing with equal parts music and authenticity.
Though not quite believable as siblings, Jay Hardee as Johnny Boyle and Melissa Marie Hmelnicky as Mary, each give their characters color and energy. Left with injuries and terrible memories from his brush with the Irish civil war (concisely explained in the program), Johnny is a broken young man, his anger and fear skillfully channeled by Hardee. Giving him the tenor of the post-traumatically stressed, Hardee is convincing as this boy thwarted before manhood. Nicely bold, Hmelnicky gives us a woman who is standing clearly on the cusp of her womanly and economic powers before falling beneath the wheels of the community mores.
In some ways personifying this ever-present community, is the apparently elderly Mrs. Maisie Madigan who joins the Boyles for an evening of music and whiskey just as their fortunes seem to have taken a turn for the better. Though a quirkily intriguing performance, Kathleen Akerley’s Madigan does not convince as a neighborhood stalwart – she is frankly too young and too fresh-faced. On the other hand, such youthful energy works well for Sam McMenamin who gives his Jerry Devine, Mary’s local suitor, a convincing awkwardness and intensity. Though possessing a good stage presence, Colin Smith as Charles Bentham, who replaces Devine in Mary’s affections, seemed more a product of a vintage British war film than O’Casey’s world.
Though only onstage for a few minutes, Rebecca A. Herron in the role of Mrs. Tancred, the neighbor whose son has been killed in the civil war, delivers a stunningly honest and artful portrayal of a mother’s grief, matched only by Juno’s later painful self-recriminations in her own moment of torment.