BY TAMAR NEUMANN: During the post-play discussion for Juno and the Paycock, the Guthrie Theater’s latest production, Jo Holcomb, dramaturg, stated that this play was in Joseph Dowling’s DNA. As I thought about everything I could say about this production I kept circling back to Holcomb’s statement. My written words cannot find a better way to express the perfect pairing of Sean O’Casey and Dowling, and so I begin my review with her sentiment in mind.
Juno and the Paycock is about an Irish man and his family. They live in the poor tenements of Dublin but good fortune seems to have come their way. Woven into this story is the background of the Irish Civil War, the poor economy of Ireland at the time, and the Catholic Church’s control of the Irish country and people. But that is really only the surface of this play as all those pieces come together to make a broader statement about choices, family, pride, and community.
The play is both tragic and comic. While not an unusual pairing for theatre, O’Casey has set up the comic so perfectly that the tragic is almost unbearable. This is helped immensely by the choices of Dowling and the actors portraying Captain Jack Boyle (Stephen Brennan), Joxer Daly (Mark Benninghofen), and Juno Boyle (Anita Reeves). Jack Boyle and Joxer Daly are the centerpieces of the play. It is essential that they be authentic and not mere caricatures. They are not characters that you will love—in fact they are people that you probably know well and try to avoid. For those reasons they must be taken seriously and both Brennan and Benninghofen find the scale of emotions and reactions that make Captain Jack Boyle and Joxer Daly into real people who make poor decisions and are left with the consequences. Benninghofen manages to capture the absurdity, the almost intelligence, and even the selfishness that makes up all the complications of Joxer Daly making Joxer into a fascinating and layered member of the cast.
But the men are only a small part of this play. It is Juno who shines as the character who transforms the most from beginning to end. Reeves, no stranger to this play or this character, plays Juno with the perfect mixture of comic nagging and true understanding of motherhood. It is her cry at the end that will bring tears to your eyes as you consider what it means to be a mother and what it must have meant to be a strong, independent woman in 1920s Catholic Ireland.
Since this is Dowling’s last play at the Guthrie many of the reviews have focused on that piece of this production. They have mentioned what this play means to Dowling and to his career. And while all of that is an essential piece of this production’s background none of it really matters. We should thank Dowling for the programs he has put in place at the Guthrie. We should thank him for the great theater he has brought to the Twin Cities. But Juno and the Paycock is still just another play, one of many from which you can choose to see this month. If you want to see Dowling’s “last bow” go see this play. But that’s not the only reason you should see this play. It is truly great theatre—a great script by a great playwright (one of the best that ever lived), an incredible cast, breathtaking sets, and a director who truly understands the lifeblood of this play. It will be a night of theatre you won’t soon forget.
Juno and the Paycock, by Sean O’Casey. May 23-June 28, 2015. The Guthrie Theatre, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415. Tickets: $35-$70; purchase tickets at guthrietheater.org or 612.377.2224.