Emerald Vile: What starts out as a Dublin comedy takes a bleak turn.
Emerald Vile: What starts out as a Dublin comedy takes a bleak turn.

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Sean O’Casey’s 1924 Juno and the Paycock feels like a shrugging comedy about poverty, familial neglect, and alcoholism before it gradually hardens into a head-shaking tragedy about poverty, familial neglect, and alcoholism. Then add gang violence and unplanned pregnancy to the litany of plagues—and never mind that the gang in question claims a self-governed Irish Republic as the end that justifies its thuggish means.

You can say at least this much for Washington Shakespeare Company’s inventively staged production of this middle chapter in O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy: It gives each of the piece’s tonal poles its due, boasts a handful of sterling performances, and looks a peach. Indeed, Jessica Moretti’s set, which takes away two walls of the Boyle family’s circa-1922 tenement apartment and positions the audience on either side to peer at one another across it, is almost too inviting for the claustrophobia this story needs. The view of the time and place director Shirley Serotsky affords us never comes into focus as sharply as our fellow patrons’ mugs, but she seems more interested in rendering O’Casey’s text faithfully than in underlining its contemporary resonance. She’s hardly the first to handle this material with white gloves: The influential critic Andrew Sarris called its 1930 film adaptation “the only Hitchcock movie that one can say that there is absolutely nothing of Hitchcock in it.”

WSC company player Joe Palka deserves his promotion here to the leading role of “Captain” Jack Boyle, a retired merchant seaman who, to paraphrase the family’s breadwinner—that’d be his saintly wife, Juno (Cam Magee)—does more work with a knife and fork than he ever did with a shovel. To be fair, he was a sailor in his prime years, which seems a salient point regardless of whether you believe his claims of “pains in me legs” that rule him out as a laborer. To what degree Serotsky wants us to condemn him as a layabout is opaque—perhaps intentionally so, perhaps not.

When the family receives word of an unexpected windfall, Jack goes on a tear of conspicuous consumption (as opposed to the bloody-cough kind usually featured in plays like this), running up bar tabs and bringing home indulgences like a gramophone. All this unfolds as the ink is barely dry on the treaty establishing the Irish Free State, a prize for which Jack’s son Johnny (a palpably frayed Jay Hardee) has given one of his arms and half of his wits—we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder now. But as a stone-faced comrade reminds him, “No man can ever do enough for Ireland.”

It might all be too relentlessly dour to bear if not for lively supporting turns from a pair of performers better known for their directing work of late: WSC artistic director Christopher Henley stirs our sympathy and our loathing as Jack’s two-faced drinking buddy, Joxer, and as Mrs. Madigan, Kathleen Akerley is as warm and decent a neighbor to the audience as she is to the pitiful, splintering Boyle clan.