Charlotte Moore, artistic director of the Irish Repertory Theatre, has impressively directed many of the company’s productions, but she absolutely soars in her staging of “The Plough and the Stars” as part of presenting a season of Sean O’Casey’s plays. There is an element of nostalgia involved, as in the first year of the Irish Rep’s existence, 1988, it presented the same O’Casey play.
O’Casey (1880-1964) had the gift of being able to create believable characters and present them in the context of Irish battles for independence, and do so with colorful dialogue that defined both them and the issues. For this production Moore has assembled the right cast for making O’Casey’s 1926 play come dynamically alive with a high level of tension.
Scenic designer Charlie Corcoran has created one of the company’s most memorable sets in which to place the spirited and tragic action. In the limited space of the compact stage, with the use of a revolving set, Corcoran has created the living room of a tenement dwelling in Dublin, a bar (public house), and an exterior outside the building wall, and yet another living room. The right wall of the theater is lined with make-believe windows to add flavor and breadth.
The play starts in November of 1915, and then moves on to the Easter Uprising in 1916, when the famed rebellion materializes. The play’s title is derived from the flag of the Irish Citizen Army. There is a meeting we hear taking place outside the public house as background against which the lives of the characters unfold and the street battle escalates.
Nora Clitheroe, played by Clare O’Malley, and Jack Clitheroe, portrayed by Adam Petherbridge, are central as a newlywed couple. Jack, a former member of the Citizen Army, is committed to the Irish rebel cause and when summoned feels duty-bound to do battle along with his comrades. But Nora passionately doesn’t want him to fight. She burns a military letter that was sent Jack, informing him of a promotion, which infuriates Jack when he learns of what she has done.
After Jack goes off to take part in the impending battle, Nora is beside herself with anger and frustration. When Jack is killed, she refuses to face the truth. She loses it mentally, and becomes increasingly hysterical in her thinking that Jack is alive. O’Malley can break one’s heart in the way in which she portrays this bereft Nora as a woman going to pieces.
(The accuracy of such a possibility struck a personal note for me. While working as a journalist years ago, I rented a room in a house in which the son, a fireman, drowned trying to save the lives of boys. His father, refusing to acknowledge the truth, would leave the house every day and say he was going to visit his son).
Michael Mellamphy gives a striking performance as the boisterous Fluther Good, who is a carpenter and a proud union member. James Russell is provocative as The Young Covey, who is a communist forever needling others about his philosophy being the only just solution for society. He especially makes fun of Robert Langdon Lloyd as Nora’s uncle, the elderly former solider Peter Flynn, who dresses in an outdated uniform and has a sword that he likes to brandish threateningly to those who mock him.
Maryann Plunkett plays Bessie Burgess, a Protestant who gets very angry and hostile when drinking too much. Úna Clancy is the feisty tenant Mrs. Gogan, who resents the way Nora dresses in trying to look chic. Meg Hennessy is pitiable as the fatally ill young Mollser dying of consumption. Sarah Street colorfully plays Rosie Redmond, the local prostitute who hangs out in the public house. Harry Smith is the bartender.
Terry Donnelly, a familiar stalwart with the Irish Rep, turns up here as the befuddled Woman from Rathmines, who is terrified at the noise of fighting and feels totally at sea. John Keating, another Irish Rep regular, is Captain Brennan of the Citizen Army.
As the drama escalates, O’Casey weaves the web of involvement in what is happening outside of the individual relationships, thus placing his characters in the midst of Irish history. He introduces two British soldiers whose actions result in an unintended civilian death and the play’s ultimate imagery is of these men sitting matter-of-factly at what they have wrought in their line of duty and covering the dead body in their midst.
From an audience viewpoint, there is cause for great appreciation of the entire cast and the writing of O’Casey, as well as for this deeply felt staging under Moore’s direction and overall affection for the continuing work of the Irish Repertory Theatre, one of New York’s esteemed theater institutions. A the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212-727-2737. Reviewed May 9, 2019.