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Juno and The Paycock

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

J. Smith-Cameron
Photo by James Higgins.
No one embodies the concept of "survivor" quite the way Juno Boyle does. You know the type: She looks from the outside as though she's spent her life walking through fire, but no matter what she won't cede defeat—hopelessness is a state of mind she refuses to embrace. Juno is the throbbing heart and indomitable spirit of Sean O'Casey's classic play Juno and the Paycock, and as played by J. Smith-Cameron in the new Irish Repertory Theatre production, she's stronger and more determined than ever. When things get bad—and in the Dublin tenements during the Irish Civil War in 1922, that doesn't take long—her sturdy, commanding presence registers as the sole beacon of stability in a world that is figuratively and literally falling apart.

Smith-Cameron positively dazzles as the matriarch of the Boyle family tasked with keeping her son Johnny (Ed Malone), daughter Mary (Mary Mallen), and husband "Captain" Jack (the paycock of the title, played by Ciarán O'Reilly), in check. The actress wields a no-nonsense sentimentality that's a tight fit for the reality-drenched woman who's always on the brink of drowning in the facts of her family, from her husband's wasteful ways hanging out with the degenerate Joxer Daly (John Keating); her daughter's romance with the class-straddling Charlie Bentham (James Russell), who brings good and bad news in equal measure; and Johnny's struggles to live without the arm he recently lost and against the pressure to resume the fighting that scarred him in the first place.

At each juncture, you see Juno striving to make the best of the situations around her, and Smith-Cameron gliding effortlessly from shrugging acceptance of her lot to hope for redemption to outright despondency that may be tempered only by soldiering on still further. Even when things turn happy, in an oh-so-brief sing-along that reinforces it takes a lot more than internecine conflicts to squelch the Irish soul, Juno is determined to endure to the end at any cost—and when she finishes her own simple duet with her daughter, it may as well be the crowning achievement of her long, distressed life.

It's a tiny moment, to be sure, but it's in such places that Smith-Cameron constructs the real essence of Juno, the foundation that support the big choices, the bigger outbursts, and the biggest examples of heroism later. And yet she does this without ever being oversized or pushing her costars into the wings. Everything Smith-Cameron does is sensibly considered and naturalistically rendered, so much so in fact that her performance doesn't take on the epic or history-making proportions that are often attached to the role. But it's unflinchingly, unfailingly real throughout, and is practically the perfect fit for the play as situated within the tiny theater that houses it.

J. Smith-Cameron joined by Mary Mallen, James Russell, Ciarán O'Reilly, Terry Donnelly, and John Keating.
Photo by James Higgins.
The other members of the company, operating under Charlotte Moore's direction, aren't in the same league, but fare more than decently enough. Johnny is forever wrought with confliction, between doing what's best for him and his family and what's best for his homeland, and Malone's deft but unsympathetic portrayal of him reels you right into his inner bleakness. Mallen moderates Mary's own evolution from good girl to broken one, her drawn, wordless face speaking volumes in the pained scenes after everything is stolen from her near the show's end. And though Terry Donnelly doesn't capture all of the horrific depths to which wise-cracking neighbor Maisie Madigan will sink when pressed, she brings a charming brightness to the more comedic half of the character.

If there's an overall problem with Moore's production, it's that it falters at presenting the terrifying, acidic depths into which everyone eventually falls. You sense this most immediately in James Noone's set, which looks like such a romanticized slum that its eventual makeover doesn't convey as it should the healing power of money. (David Toser's modest costumes and Brian Nason's lights do a somewhat better job.) It's also clear in a couple of key characters. Joxer, especially, should be an early guidepost, if not a warning klaxon, of who these people are and the trouble they court, but Keating is not as convincing as he should be as the all-consuming agent of chaos that threatens the Boyles by his very presence.

Beyond him, however, Juno and the Paycock is almost a textbook tragedy, with the necessary hubris supplied by Jack, who, as the title suggests, should be equal in stature to Juno so that his descent may contrast with her efforts to keep herself elevated. Though he giddily embraces his character's perpetual inebriation, you never quite feel that O'Reilly isn't putting on a show—his Jack struts about with his tail feathers splayed a little too broadly, as though the actor wants to indicate something of which he can't convince us through sheer force of performance. O'Reilly's Jack is amusing enough, particularly when an inheritance transforms him from a work-averse layabout into all-out dandy, but he needs to be destructively real, the impediment to his family's happiness in the third act, and O'Reilly's constant silent winking prevents you from ever fully absorbing that idea.

Or, it turns out, the production itself, which is slick and watchable but never really moving when Juno is not at its center. Luckily, she's rarely far away, and Smith-Cameron dominates whenever she appears. If nothing quite compares to the avalanche of emotions Juno displays at the climax, when at least three different kinds of heartbreak are competing for her attention with her never-say-die attitude and her love for her daughter, it's merely the culmination of events that Smith-Cameron has always ensured we understood were coming. Juno, she seems to tell us from the opening scene, is prepared for anything—so this is how she behaves when anything finally arrives. It's chilling, enraging, and beautiful—all the things the rest of this Juno and the Paycock should be more frequently than it is.

Juno and The Paycock
Through December 8
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix