The admirably ambitious Irish Heritage Theatre completes their traversal of Sean O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy with The Plough and the Stars. All three groundbreaking plays were written in the 1920s, and set against what was then a recent time of prolonged political turbulence, including the Easter Rebellion and the Irish War of Independence. In Juno and the Paycock, the play that precedes Plough, the focus is on the crippling effects of all this fighting on domestic life. Irish Heritage’s production last October, under Peggy Meacham’s direction, did a lovely job with it.
Family life figures also in Plough and the Stars, though the tone here is more bitingly satiric, and the world of the streets and political agitation front-and-center. As the title suggests, the denizens of this world exist in an unbridgeable space between their hardscrabble earthly lives, and their dreams for something better.
Here again, Peggy Meacham directs, and she has a number of good ideas. The abstract setting, a skeletal depiction of row houses, is assembled in different configurations that suggest multiple locations. She handles the tricky appearance of the Man in the Window (compellingly played by Mark Knight) in a way that feels fresh and startling — it’s both part of the narrative, and removed from it. Some of the intimate scenes also really register, notably a poignant scene in the first act between a young husband and wife, acted with touching sincerity by Harry Watermeier and Victoria Rose Bonito.
But there’s a big-boned, messy wildness at the core of Plough — O’Casey doesn’t shy away from anger, alcoholism, and the uglier aspects of his characters. Comedy and tragedy are always bumping into one another. And that stretches the resources here. The mix of acting styles and accents may well be rooted in the reality of Dublin in 1915-16, but it feels jarring (and it’s not always easy to follow the dialogue). The intimacy of the Plays & Players stage, often an asset in smaller plays, feels constraining in the larger scenes here, which also need more sense of energy and commotion.
The play itself is also more difficult to penetrate. Watching Juno last October, my first reaction was that while it was specifically about a particular moment in time and place, its central themes were transcendent. I had rather the opposite feeling with Plough, which while still very recognizably a major work, was rooted in a milieu now far removed from us.
In the end, this is an A-for-effort production that has some fine moments, without ultimately realizing the size and scale of the play. But there’s no doubting the power of O’Casey’s writing, with its tangy admixture of dark comedy and mournfulness. We Americans have few opportunities to see his work— in fact, it’s been more than 40 years since the last Broadway revival of Plough and the Stars. So especially if you’re an Irish literature, theater, or history buff, this is a rare opportunity.
Plough and the Stars runs through June 11. For more information, visit the Irish Heritage Theatre website.