Dublin’s renowned Abbey Theatre has brought a modernized production of Sean O’Casey’s four act drama The Plough and the Stars to the American Repertory Theatre. In keeping with today’s conventions, it is played as four scenes with one intermission. First performed in 1926, ten years after the Easter Uprising when outnumbered Irish nationalists attempted to drive out the British, the play deals with the horrors and uselessness of rebellion by showing its effects upon the working poor.
Seven of The Plough and the Stars’ fourteen characters are tenants of a rundown tenement where the play begins and ends. Nora (Kate Stanley Brennan) and Jack Clitheroe (Ian-Lloyd Anderson) are a young married couple whose financial circumstances are better than their neighbors because they are able to rent out a room in their flat to Jack’s communist cousin the Young Covey (Ciará O’Brian), and Peter Flynn (James Hayes), Nora’s uncle. Nora, in particular, has middle-class ambitions, as seen by her fancy hat and demeanor. Mrs. Gogan (Janet Moran), the second floor tenant is a gossipy widowed charwoman with a young tubercular daughter and baby. She is jealous of Nora’s attractiveness and comfortable life. Unlike the other women, Nora does not work. Mollser (Rachel Gleason), the sickly girl on the verge of death, is symbolic of society’s neglect of the impoverished. Bessie Burgess (Hilda Fay) is the third-floor neighbor, a tough Protestant Unionist and fruit vendor, often at odds with Mrs. Gogan. As the play draws towards its end, we see Bessie’s compassion.
Scene two takes place in a pub where the audience is introduced to the bartender (Ger Kelly) and the prostitute Rosie Redmond (Nyree Yergainharsian). Despite Rosie’s good looks and flirtatious manner, she has no customers. Most of the neighborhood men have gone to a meeting of the Irish Citizen Army. When the Covey enters, she tries to seduce him, but he runs off in fear. In 1926 Dublin, this scene was a shocker. After the meeting, the men enter the pub. Rosie finds a client in Fluther (David Ganly), a neighborhood carpenter, and they leave together. Jack forsakes his pregnant wife for the independence of Ireland. As he tells his soldier buddies, “Ireland is greater than a wife.”
In the following act, the uprising has begun. Scene three is set in the street against an emblematic green wall. Most of the tenement dwellers arrive. Nora has left the neighborhood to look for her soldier husband because she fears for his life. Depressed and frightened, she returns without Jack who is still lost. The insurgents shamed her saying women need to be brave.
The highlight of the scene is the looting in which almost all the characters participate. Mrs. Gogan and Bessie give up their mutual enmity to help each other acquire more goods. In this contemporary world, some of the looters steal high tech items. Even the Covey, pacifist communist that he is, makes off with a washing machine.
Jack returns briefly, only to reject Nora cruelly. He is accompanied by a captain (Liam Heslin) dragging a wounded insurgent (Lloyd Cooney) who leaves a trail of blood behind. Blood figures prominently in the play. Mollser coughs up blood and Bessie bleeds to death.
At the scene’s end, the tall metal scaffolding which represents the tenement falls over on its side. The characters’ world has collapsed. For those left alive, suffering lies ahead.
The Abbey, which premiered O’Casey’s play, has presented it more often than any other work, perhaps the motivation for director Sean Holmes’ attempt to contemporize it. Apart from using modern devices such as a television set with remotes to broadcast part of the rebel leader Patrick Pearse’s speech and updating the clothing to a limited extent, he changes the acting style from naturalistic to epic at times through having the actors direct their lines to the audience rather than their scene partner or partners. Earlier, Jack sings a love song to Nora lying in bed with a microphone on his chest.
The most successful transformation into the present day was the designer Jon Bausor’s abstract steel tower which replaced O’Casey’s tenement. Paul Keogan’s fluorescent lights at the edge of the stage are effective as is the big dipper seen briefly in the night sky.
Mollser’s role has been expanded, conceivably because she more than any other character is doomed. She opens the show standing in front of a closed curtain singing, a microphone in hand. She appears again during a scene break, dancing and jumping. Since O’Casey’s play gives her very little to do, the director may have wanted to show her fantasies. We also see her sitting on the stairs watching and listening to events from the sidelines.
The first half of the show felt long and often difficult to follow. This was due to the very heavy brogues the actors use as well as the slangy vocabulary O’Casey wrote, both decidedly foreign to an American audience. Since the exposition is complicated, surtitles would have been helpful. Fortunately, the action picks up in the second half and the story becomes clearer and more dramatic.
The actors are individually good and the ensemble very strong. Surprisingly, for a play written in the early twentieth century, most of the powerful roles went to women, all of whom shine in this production. Among the men Ian-Lloyd Anderson stood out as Nora’s ambivalent husband and David Ganly as Fluther Good, the hard-drinking, but kindly neighbor given to speechifying.
The Plough and the Stars continues through October 9 at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA
Produced by the Abbey Theatre and presented by the American Repertory Theatre
Playwright ……………Sean O’Casey
Director ……………… Sean Holmes
Set Design …………… Jon Bausor
Costume Design ……… Catherine Fay
Lighting Design ………. Paul Kiogan
Music and Sound Design Philip Stewart
Jack Clitheroe …………. Ian-Lloyd Anderson
Nora Clitheroe …………. Kate Stanley Brennan
Sergeant Tinley ………… Tony Clay
Lieut. Langon ………… Lloyd Cooney
Bessie Burgess ……….. Hilda Fay
Fluther Good …………. David Ganly
Mollser ……………….. Rachel Gleeson
Peter Flynn …………… James Hayes
Capt. Brennan ………… Liam Heslin
Bartender ………………Ger Kelly
Mrs. Gogan …………… Janet Moran
The Young Covey …….. Ciarán O’Brien
Corporal Stoddart ……… Nima Taleghani
Rosie Redmond ……….. Nyree Yergainharsian