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The Irish Problem

Very Little Theatre comes up historically short with ambitious production of Juno and the Paycock
The cast of VLT’s Juno and the Paycock
The cast of VLT’s Juno and the Paycock

Although I’m aware that conflicts of one kind or another have rocked Ireland for centuries, my knowledge of early 20th-century Irish history is admittedly, and perhaps regrettably, patchy, and I’m going to go ahead and wager that, in 2016, it is for most people.

And this is a hindrance for Very Little Theatre’s current production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, on now under the direction of Michael Walker. 

Textually, the play — set in 1922 and premiering in 1924 — assumes the political context of the story is front and center for its audience. And VLT’s production, though earnest and well intentioned, misses opportunities that do exist within the text of the play to refresh or inform us. The Irish Free State was established in 1922 under the Anglo-Irish treaty, ending the three-year Irish War of Independence. This storyline is effectively buried.

Without clarity on these reference points, the woeful tragedy of the Boyle family lacks the impact it could have or was meant to have by O’Casey — Irish stereotypes set adrift without moorings. 

The Boyles are achingly poor, thoroughly Irish in their predilection for drink, song and religion, and they are presented with salvation in the form of an inheritance, only to have it snatched away on a technicality.

In the midst of the 2016 presidential election, the plight of poor people (the 99 percent, if you will) is on people’s minds, and many more chances are missed to bring contemporary relevance to the show — the choice between no work and work that will kill you, politics that have abandoned you, misplaced and misguided nationalism, and regular folks gunned down in the street.

That could be Ireland 1922 or United States 2016. I wanted to feel that.

Juno and the Paycock is ambitious for VLT for many reasons, including the Irish accents. I’m uneasy about any theatrical production, professional or not, attempting to replicate any kind of accent. They’re tough. The play also has a large, unwieldy cast, complex politics and a dense text that hasn’t aged particularly well for modern audiences.

VLT’s show is overall capable, admirable and often entertaining. A highlight comes from Adrian Lawler in the role of Johnny Boyle, an injured veteran of his country’s ongoing conflict and suffering what we now understand to be PTSD. 

In the play program, Lawler explains that his ancestors fought in the skirmishes referenced in the play. He himself immigrated to the United States in 2008 after Ireland’s economy crashed, and has never before acted in a play. During the play my mother, who accompanied me, leaned over and whispered, “He seems so real.” Indeed she was right.

Juno and the Paycock continues through Oct. 22 at Very Little Theatre; $15-$19, tickets at thevlt.com or 541-344-7751.