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DruidO’Casey: Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy

Galway's renowned Druid Theatre Company reorders Seán O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy to stunning effect.

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Hilda Fay and Rory Nolan in “Juno and the Paycock, part of DruidO’Casey: Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy, at Jack H. Skirball Center for The Performing Arts (Photo credit: Ros Kavanagh)

“Ah, what can God do agen the stupidity o’men!” Not a damn thing. Whether you have faith in a divine creator or you don’t, that’s the Irish dramatist Seán O’Casey’s stark answer to Juno Boyle’s desperate question. Coming near the conclusion of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, it should be a purely rhetorical understanding between the persevering Juno (Hilda Fay), her troubled daughter Mary (Zara Devlin), and the audience but, just in case you have somehow failed to grasp the obvious from all that’s come before (or the play’s telling title), O’Casey has Juno’s preening husband Captain Jack (Rory Nolan) and his sycophantic buddy Joxer Daly (Aaron Monaghan) reappear in a bitterly comedic epilogue that lays Ireland’s struggles squarely at the stumbling feet of their drunken double act.

By world premiere date, Juno and the Paycock is the fulcrum of O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy, a tenement-eye view of the Irish battle for independence whose violence, ultimately, turned inward. During its marathon performance of the plays, however, Galway’s acclaimed Druid Theatre Company has chosen historical over scripted chronology, which is what brilliantly allows Juno to have the final sober word. It also means beginning where O’Casey ends, with The Plough and the Stars, a blistering rejection of the fervor, both temporal and celestial, that led to the 1916 Easter Rising. First staged at the Abbey Theatre a decade later, its run was infamously marred by a riotous audience who took exception to O’Casey’s derisive take on the patriotic and religious calls to action that had inspired the honored wounded and dead.

Aaron Monaghan and Sarah Morris in “The Plough and the Stars,” part of  DruidO’Casey: Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy at Jack H. Skirball Center for The Performing Arts (Photo credit: Ros Kavanagh)

A working-class socialist, O’Casey wanted both a free Ireland and a just one but felt that the latter was sacrificed to the former on a nationalistic altar whose victims mostly never had a real voice in the outcome. With his usual contrarian candor, O’Casey gives the unheard their say in The Plough and the Stars, though it’s a decidedly unromantic revising of the past, in which O’Casey doesn’t even flatteringly depict The Young Covey (Marty Rea), a needling socialist whose callowness is right there in the character’s name. As everyone talks and nobody listens, the fates of the powerless are sealed by an unseen and unnamed orator who, feigned coyness aside, speaks in the words of the Easter-Rising leader and martyr Patrick Pearse: “Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing.”

Director Garry Hynes (a co-founder of the Druid) heightens the portent of this bellicose rhetoric, as well as O’Casey’s mockery of it, by having a fractious collection of barroom denizens stop their arguing to silently imbibe the outside speechifying with upturned faces (hauntingly lit by James F. Ingalls). As for a verbal rebuke, a biting one comes courtesy of Rosie Redmond (Anna Healy), a prostitute, who pragmatically declares she won’t “fight for freedom that wouldn’t be worth winnin’ in a raffle!” With O’Casey, female wisdom, unfortunately, is never heeded, which inevitably has dire consequences for female sanity and female safety.

Marty Rea, Robbie O’Connor and Caitríona Ennis in “The Shadow of a Gunman,” as part of DruidO’Casey : Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy at Jack H. Skirball Center for The Performing Arts (Photo credit: Ros Kavanagh)

As also holds true in O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy, the belly laughs have a habit of culminating in gut punches, blows which the audience sees coming but still land unexpectedly. In The Plough and the Stars, what obscures the coup de grâce is that O’Casey, who certainly never owned a pair of rose-colored glasses, encourages hope from believable moments of grace before decisively snuffing it out through the tragic figure of Bessie Burgess (the remarkable Hilda Fay, again), a Protestant who serenades her fellow tenement dwellers with a heartfelt rendition of “Rule, Britannia!,” taunting, in particular, her Catholic neighbor Mrs. Gogan (Sarah Morris). But Bessie, who has a profoundly sad reason for despising the Irish Rebels, also shows tenderness towards Mrs. Gogan’s consumptive daughter Mollser (Tara Cush) and becomes the caretaker for another forlorn neighbor, the psychologically damaged Nora Clitheroe (Sophie Lenglinger), whose husband Jack (Liam Heslin) has ignored her pleas not to join the Republican fight. To say the least, Bessie’s attempt at reconciliation goes unrewarded, which she vehemently proclaims–“I was a fool, a fool, a fool!”–as the audience looks on in horror.

Normally the shockingly sour coda to O’Casey’s symphony of downtrodden Irish life during revolutionary times, in the Druid’s epic production of the Dublin Trilogy, it now gives way to the much less historically, structurally, and emotionally complex The Shadow of a Gunman, a mistaken-identity farce set in 1920 during the Irish War of Independence. An aspiring, Shelley-admiring poet, Donal Davoren (Marty Rea, again) shares a tenement room with peddler Seumas Shields (Rory Nolan, again), who is despondent about the Irish people’s prospects for self-government when they “treat a joke as a serious thing and a serious thing as a joke.” Davoren himself soon falls prey to the latter, reveling in the other slum residents’ false belief that he is a member of the Irish Republican Army. Or, rather, the IRA-besotted Minnie Powell (Caitríona Ennis), another of O’Casey’s hapless women, bears the cost of Davoren’s deception as The Shadow of a Gunman takes a Hitchcockian turn (the English filmmaker should have adapted this simpler play instead of Juno and the Paycock). In contrast to The Plough and the Stars, though, the closing violence occurs offstage, as O’Casey instead leaves us with a very masculine portrait of impotent guilt.

Gabriel Adewusi, Liam Heslin, Sean Kearns and Garrett Lombard in “The Plough and the Stars,” part of DruidO’Casey: Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy at Jack H. Skirball Center for The Performing Arts (Photo credit: Ros Kavanagh)

That provides the perfect lead-in to Juno’s story, which begins a couple years later, while the Irish Civil War rages outside her tenement walls. As she puts up with the loafing shenanigans of Captain Jack and Joxer, Juno is overburdened with responsibilities that include domestic chores, being the household’s lone breadwinner, and tending to her disabled son Johnny (Tommy Harris), an angry young man who lost an arm to the cause of Irish independence. News of an inheritance owed to Jack offers the possibility of relief, but O’Casey will not let his audience indulge for long in the promise of better tomorrows. What solace he does provide comes from the assurance that, no matter what miseries darken her doorway, Juno will endure. Elaborating on this point with expressionistic wit, Hynes and set designer Francis O’Connor close the loop on their O’Casey cycle with an Ibsenian callback to the opening act of The Plough and the Stars, when the genial carpenter Fluther Good (Aaron Monaghan, again) fixed the lock on Nora’s door. It’s an acerbically clever reminder that, unlike the Norwegian and middle-class Nora in A Doll’s House, there is no escape for O’Casey’s Nora, or Juno, or the other poor women in his Irish triptych.

DruidO’Casey: Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy (October 4 – 14, 2023)

Jack H. Skirball Center for The Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Place, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-998-4941 or visit

Running time: six hours and 15 minutes with two intermissions, a coffee break, and a dinner break

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