The Roundabout Theater Co.’s splendidly realized new production of Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Pay-cock” invites the inevitable, sorrowing comparisons with today’s newspaper headlines. The day may come when the wounding cry of grief that reverberates throughout this tragicomic masterpiece is rendered irrelevant, but it’s probably not arriving anytime soon. With the Mideast erupting in rabid sectarian violence yet again, and the truce in Northern Ireland a precarious proposition, it’s clear enough that “hearts o’ stone” still retain their powerful sway in the world.
The play confronts us with an agonizing picture of the damage caused by both man’s cruelty and his feckless-ness, but there is solace, too, in O’Casey’s vision of maternal love and endurance, forces that the most indifferent fate (or is it God?) cannot confound. John Crowley’s robustly acted production searches out all the colors in the play and lets them shine in their variously comic, comforting or mournful hues. It’s bold and confident — if just occasionally overemphatic — and another happy indication, following the summer’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” that the Roundabout has returned to fine form after an off season.
The production is semi-derived from a staging last year at London’s Donmar Warehouse, also directed by Crowley and featuring the same actress, the Irish Dearbhla Molloy, in the role of the careworn but indomitable Juno Boyle, a mother and wife in strife-torn 1922 Dublin saddled with more than her share of the world’s woes.
The actress thoroughly inhabits her role, with no fuss or fanciness, from the decaying soles of her shoes (one of many gritty touches in Rae Smith’s thoughtful costumes), to the frayed-looking nimbus of hair surrounding a stout grimace. It’s a face that expects to meet contradiction or confrontation on the other side of every door, but retains a telling softness around the eyes. Molloy’s Juno radiates energy and decision, making the rascally Joxer Daly’s desperate scrambling to get out of her way entirely plausible. And in her tartly sarcastic attempts to rouse her husband into employment can be heard the essential good humor that has somehow survived a life of disap-pointments.
In opposition to her harried energy is the no less dedicated inertia of Jim Norton’s Jack Boyle, the strutting “Paycock” of the title, whose determination to avoid the humiliation of gainful employ provides much of the play’s vivid comedy. As with Molloy’s earthbound Juno, Norton, who broke through on Broadway two seasons back in “The Weir,” is an effortlessly natural Captain Jack whose inherent theatricality is never allowed to over-flow into caricature.
The wily eyes of Norton’s Captain Jack have the sparkle of a man always calculating where his next drink may be coming from, and there’s a lively spring in his step that would easily keep him just ahead of the wife as well as the wolf at the door. It’s also easy to see the charmer he once was: When Jack recalls with easy warmth how Juno came by her name, the vestiges of affection that keep them together subtly perfume the air for a few telling in-stants.
Fine as these performances in the play’s title roles are, the strength of Crowley’s production is in its attentive-ness to the interplay among all O’Casey’s strongly defined characters.
Gretchen Cleevely, a talented young actress who was delightfully fey in Beth Henley’s “Impossible Marriage” at the Roundabout a couple of seasons ago, gives a fierce and affecting performance as the duped Mary.
Impish and just as strong-willed as her mother in the first act, when she rebuffs the affections of the earnest Jerry Devine (Norbert Leo Butz), Cleevely’s Mary is an empty-eyed wraith in the last act, after she is abandoned first by the fiance who’s helped to bring about the family’s ruin, and then by her potential savior, Jerry.
Butz, too, gives a memorable, ardent and touching performance as a young man whose heart of flesh ossifies quickly when it must face down cultural and religious prejudices.
A choice comic turn is contributed by Thomas Jay Ryan as Joxer, who looks like a jowly dog and moves like a lesser order of beast — a bottom-dwelling crustacean, perhaps. Also fine is Cynthia Darlow as the sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued Maisie Madigan.
There are moments when Jason Butler Harner’s sensitively acted Johnny threatens to descend into the over-wrought, and Crowley’s production plays up the aching pathos elsewhere, too. Both occasions on which mothers indict an indifferent God for the suffering of his children — “Take away our hearts o’ stone …” — are given a determined emphasis that veers toward the stagy, for example. But these are only slight fluctuations in inflection in a production that, overall, eschews both sentimentality and comic cliches.
The physical production, in the inhospitable Gramercy Theater, is highlighted by Smith’s finely detailed set and the naturalistic but suggestive lighting of Brian MacDevitt, which slowly dims along with the family’s for-tunes.
The last act of the play is an almost absurd string of calamities that sweeps the stage of warmth, of characters, even of furniture, as if preparing the way for the coming of another great Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett.
In the final moments Captain Jack stumbles drunkenly home to splatter himself in the middle of the empty living room, decrying the state of the world his own feebleness has helped bring about. Norton’s Captain Jack staggers hungrily from the chaotic darkness to the only patch of light in the room, stretching instinctively for grace but collapsing into unconsciousness, too weak to reach it.