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The Plough and the Stars

Theatre Review by David Hurst - April 30, 2019

Clare O'Malley and Adam Petherbridge
Photo by Carol Rosegg

In 1988 Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars was the Irish Repertory Theatre's very first production. It returns to their stage tonight as part of their ambitious Sean O'Casey Season, now extended thru June 22, running in repertory with the other two plays in the playwright's Dublin Trilogy: The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock. Directed by the Rep's Artistic Director, Charlotte Moore, this moving revival is the perfect capstone to O'Casey's heartbreaking examination of struggling, tenement families set against the backdrop of the Easter Rising (1916), the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-1923).

Set among the denizens of a Dublin tenement on the eve of the Easter Rising of 1916, The Plough and the Stars centers on a young, newlywed couple, Jack Clitheroe, a persuasive Adam Petherbridge, and his pretty wife, Nora, a moving Clare O'Malley. A pregnant Nora is desperate to keep Jack from accepting a commission in the Irish Citizen Army and even goes so far as to burn a letter he's gotten from them notifying him he's been made a Commandant. But when the conflict begins, Jack leaves Nora to lead the fighting, leaving Nora to cope with loneliness and fears amidst her quarrelsome, frightened neighbors as their building becomes swept up in the devastation gripping all of Dublin.

Utilizing the framework of Charlie Corcoran's shrewd and evocative scenic design present in all three productions, the Rep's revival boasts a solid cast with outstanding supporting performances. Notably, as the charwoman Mrs. Gogan and her consumptive daughter, Mollser, Una Clancy and Meg Hennessy are riveting and heartbreaking. And in an almost impossible role, the wonderful Maryann Plunkett manages to walk the fine line between lunacy and compassion as Bessie Burgess, a fruit seller who irritates all her neighbors with her British loyalist rhetoric but ends up caring for Nora in the play's conclusion. As The Young Covey (Jack's cousin), Peter Flynn (Nora's Uncle), Fluther Good and Rosie Redmond, James Russell, Robert Landon Lloyd, Michael Mellamphy and Sarah Street all make forceful and memorable impressions. And, in a case of luxury casting, Terry Donnelly plays the small, cameo role of The Woman from Rathmines with presence and panache. As is the case with all three plays in the trilogy, the costumes by Linda Fisher & David Toser, the lighting by Michael Gottlieb and the sound design (critical in Plough) by Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab are all superb; particularly for an off-Broadway production on a tight budget.

Seldom produced, The Plough and the Stars takes a dim view of Irish nationalism, is contemptuous of any sentimentalizing of war and is rightfully scornful of the misery brought on by the curse of poverty. Many consider it O'Casey's masterpiece so do yourself a favor and see it (along with the rest of the trilogy) in this timeless and heartfelt production.

The Plough and the Stars
Through June 22
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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