The Irish Repertory Theatre’s Sean O’Casey Season concludes with The Plough and the Stars, whose title is synonymous with the flag for the Irish Citizen Army. The last of O’Casey’s trilogy, which includes The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock, has joined the other two in repertory, and it’s a rougher, more jagged experience. Like the others, it takes place in a tenement; here the numerous characters move in and out of the parlor of Nora and Jack Clitheroe. In Charlotte Moore’s splendid production, one feels the close quarters: the frictions are quicker to arise, and there is always a bone to pick.
The play opens with a scene that points up the lack of privacy. A neighbor, Fluther Good (Michael Mellamphy), is repairing a lock on the Clitheroes’ front door. He is joined by Mrs. Gogan (Úna Clancy), a busybody who has taken a package that has arrived for Nora and then audaciously opens it. It holds a hat, which she tries on as she talks about Nora’s putting on airs. When Nora (Clare O’Malley) returns, the hat is back in the box, but now her Uncle Peter (Robert Langdon Lloyd), a republican, is battling with a boarder, Nora’s cousin Covey (James Russell), a socialist. Before long another neighbor, the Protestant Bessie Burgess (Maryann Plunkett) is trying to force her way into Nora’s apartment as Nora tries to shut the door on the drunken woman.
The Plough and the Stars seethes with resentments. Some are religious and moral, as when Bessie pointedly says to Mrs. Gogan that she “knows when she was got, where she was got, an’ how she was got, while there’s some she knows, decoratin’ their finger with a well-polished wedding ring, would be hard put to it if they were assed to show their weddin’ lines.” Gogan bridles: “Ye old blasted liar. Me weddin’ ring’s been well earned be twenty years be the side o’ me husband…”
Since Plough takes place in 1916 during the Easter Uprising against British rule, much of the conflict comes from wartime duress. Jack is an officer in the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), but he has reportedly been passed over for promotion and is home sulking. When he arrives home, though, he and Nora enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet in their parlor. She wants only to have a tranquil domestic life, and she bridles at the demands placed on Jack by the ICA. Politics forces its way into their lives when Jack is summoned back by the organization and the ICA goes to war.
This 1926 play caused riots at its premiere, and William Butler Yeats took to the stage to denounce the audience. The Irish resented O’Casey’s harsh satire of their manners and obsessions, none of which are softened by Moore’s canny direction. The sense of lives under strain from military occupation and the desperation to throw it off is vivid and still relevant to understanding the world’s flashpoints.
There are redemptive moments as well. Both Covey and Fluther treat Sarah Street’s prostitute Rosie Redmond to drinks; Fluther, of course, is interested in her services. Lloyd is comically saddled with a baby and has to find the mother to return it, and Plunkett’s Bessie, in spite of the enmity between her and Mrs. Gogan, treats the latter’s consumptive daughter (Meg Hennessy) with kindness, bringing her liquids to calm her coughing. In a moment of amusing reversal, the splenetic women battle over a pram and then decide to share and go looting together.
If the cast here works more as an ensemble, the central pair of Nora and Jack (Adam Petherbridge) come off as less interesting than one expects. O’Malley is fine as the composed and efficient Nora, but her journey requires a complete mental breakdown, and one’s sympathies end up being more for the stronger women who endure the killings of their relatives and the vanity of their menfolk that often leaves them widowed.
Almost all the actors have been in one of the other two plays, and the result is a smoothly humming ensemble. Plunkett is particularly strong as the Protestant Bessie, with a drinking problem and a temper, but a good heart when she’s sober. Hennessy doesn’t overdo the consumption, and Mellamphy and Lloyd bring a touch of comic relief to their scenes. The former continually uses “derogatory” to give his opinions some heft, whether the word is accurate or not. And Lloyd subtly inhabits an old warrior with the outdated notion of war as a glorious endeavor. It’s not really possible to pick one of the three to see over the other two. All are memorable.
The Plough and the Stars plays through June 22 at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West. 22nd St.). It is possible to see all three plays on Saturdays; visit irishrep.org for the repertory schedule, or call the box office at (212) 727-2737.