“Memory is the only thing that grief can call its own,” Sean O’Casey wrote, and there is grief and memory enough to go around in his classic play “Juno and the Paycock,” now being performed at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.
Set in Dublin in 1922, the play is rife with the troubles of the time: the debilitating and never-ending guerilla warfare for Irish independence, the crippling poverty and strikes of the working class, and the burdens of coping with war-crippled sons, drunken fathers, and compromised daughters. These are the circumstances that the Boyle family lives with, and it’s no picnic.
Hunkered down in a shabby tenement flat, the family consists of a harried mother (Kitty Swink), called Juno because the brief happinesses of her life happened in the month of June; a malingering husband, “Captain Jack” (John Apicella), who feigns disability whenever the subject of work comes up; a physically and emotionally battle-damaged son, Johnny (Josh Zuckerman); and a daughter, Mary (Jeanne Syquia), who is on strike because, as she says, “A principle is a principle.” But what that principle is is never made clear.
Juno is the family breadwinner, working while her husband “struts around like a paycock” — the Irish pronunciation of the bird with the bright tail feathers. “Captain Jack,” so-called because he worked on a boat at one time and now permanently covers his head with a captain’s hat, spends his time in the local pub with his toadying friend Joxer Daly (Armin Shimerman).
Suddenly, like manna from heaven, the family is lifted from poverty when a cousin of Captain Jack’s leaves them a small fortune in his will. This good news is brought to the Boyles by Charles Bentham (Joe Delafield), a dapper lawyer who spouts an inexplicable belief system, Theosophy, and begins to court the daughter, Mary.
In anticipation of their upcoming windfall, the Boyles transform their hovel into a respectable living space by buying furniture and household luxuries on credit. (The seedy tenement and its transformation are ably rendered by scenic designer Chuck Erven). Jack also maintains the standard of living he aspires to by borrowing money from all his neighbors, with the promise to repay the loans as soon as his inheritance arrives.
Just the expectation of money makes Captain Jack an instant authority on everything. Castigating his duplicitous friend Joxer as a “prognosticator and procrastinator,” whatever that means, he demonstrates his self-absorption and callousness by dismissing a neighbor’s death and funeral with, “They don’t affect us, so we needn’t give a damn.”
In the end, however, life remains cruel to the Boyles and the play ends as it began, with reverberations of ongoing disaster as Juno wails, “What can God do against the stupidity of men?!”
The cast, under the strong direction of Allan Miller, is uniformly excellent, with the slight exception of Johnny, whose role is unclear and whose speeches are unintelligible. His sole purpose seems to be to add another crushing burden to his mother’s life.
This is a heavy-duty play, bearing the weight of Sean O’Casey’s political views and his involvement in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which represented the interests of Dublin’s unskilled laborers. It would appear to be an outdated polemic, but now, nearly a century later, it’s not that far from global reality.
“Juno and the Paycock” runs Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 5 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Call (310) 477-2055 or visit www.odysseytheatre.com for reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.