Maryann Plunkett & Clare O'Malley in The Plough and the Stars

Review of The Plough and the Stars at Irish Repertory Theatre

David Walters
David Walters

The third of Sean O'Casey's Dublin plays, The Plough and the Stars, rounds out the trilogy now playing in rep through June 22, 2019, at Irish Repertory Theatre. What a rare opportunity to see all three plays in such close proximity and get a sense of Casey's growth as a writer. Please do take advantage of this gift that Irish Rep has put together as it's likely this may never be seen again in your lifetime.

Plough was the inaugural play that Irish Rep put on in 1988. It was directed by Charlotte Moore (a co-founder with Ciaran O'Reilly) and this production boasts that same director some 22 years later.

Plough is a four-act play that is more complicated than the other two (The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock), autobiographical and encompassing O'Casey's early life and later experiences with the Irish Citizen Army.

The public reaction to the play (rioting) was instrumental in propelling O'Casey to the international stage and led to his eventually leaving Ireland to settle in England.

The first two acts (which felt a bit disconnected in comparison to acts three and four, though the second act was originally a one-act play on its own) take place in the fall of 1915 and depict the everyday squabbles and bickerings of the residents of a dingy tenement house in Dublin.

There is a sweet moment in the first act when the pregnant Nora (Clare O'Malley) is being sung to by her husband Jack (Adam Petherbridge) that abruptly ends when Jack lets the outside world in and finds that his wife has been dishonest (through fighting for her family) with him by burning a letter he had received making him a Commandant in the Irish Citizen Army. Jack's devotion to the cause does not lift him to hero status in the play, but instead highlights the loss that occurs because of his choice.

The second half of the play puts us right in the middle of the gunfire and bombs of Easter Week, 1916; where staying in your home is just as dangerous as being at the Post Office or Dublin Bakery on O'Connell Street. The heavy cost of armed insurgence rains down upon the tenement's women and children leaving them worse off than they were before. The struggles heaped upon them are all portrayed with a stalwart vehemence: Nora; Bessie (Maryann Plunkett), a combative British loyalist; the widow Mrs. Gogan (Una Clancy); and her consumptive daughter Mollser (Meg Hennessy).

O'Casey exhibits no sentimentality depicting these events. Loss permeates act four, walking hand in hand with helpless attempts to care for each other and an overall presence of personal neglect. The director, Charlotte Moore, then artistically snuffs out the candle on the scene leaving us with a lingering, candle smoke scent in the air, sense of regret for choices made.

Surprisingly, I felt that The Plough and the Stars has real relevancy in what we are all talking about currently in the themes and reality of working-class want and pain that exists in many households; the day in and day out struggles with money and health that are prevalent worldwide and not fully addressed by government and capitalist powers. Back then these turns led O'Casey to lean towards socialism as a way to help the working poor.

See this production for several reasons: because it's O'Casey in rep being put on by one of New York's most vibrant off-broadway companies; because it has something to say about what is happening in our society today; because MaryAnn Plunkett's talent will make you feel compassion for someone you thought you despised.

(Photo by Carol Rosegg)

"Director Charlotte Moore does strong work with the customarily deft Irish Rep ensemble, but since we don't hear O'Casey's provocations as provocations anymore, for a long time the play seems nice. Nice and quiet."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York

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