By Joseph Hurley
Director John Crowley isn’t interested in staging Sean O’Casey’s classic tragicomedy, "Juno and the Paycock," anywhere in Ireland, and certainly not in Dublin.
"The Irish audience, particularly the one in Dublin, would probably mumble the lines along with the actors," he said in a rehearsal break in the basement of the Gramercy Theatre on East 23rd Street, where the 31-year-old Cork-born stage director is mounting what is probably O’Casey’s most enduring play for the Roundabout Theatre.
Crowley is fresh from staging "Juno" at London’s Donmar Warehouse. But the Roundabout’s "Juno," which opens Oct. 19, is far from a mere trans-oceanic transfer. For one thing, just one actor, Dearbhla Molloy, who plays Juno Boyle, will have appeared in both.
What remains resoundingly constant with regard to both the British staging and the one about to debut at the Roundabout is director Crowley’s view of the play, which played its first performances at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1924.
"It’s my favorite O’Casey play," he said, "and I think it’s his greatest achievement, in the way in which he locates in one family most of the pressure points and cracks and fissures that were erupting in the society at the time. The whole social landscape is present in one family’s fortunes."
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Crowley first worked on "Juno and the Paycock" when, as a recent graduate of University College Cork, he served as assistant director to Joe Dowling on a production of the play put together to tour England with Anita Reeves in the leading role. " ‘The Plough and the Stars’," he said, "may present a broader canvas, but I still think ‘Juno’ is Sean O’Casey’s greatest achievement as a dramatist."
John Crowley is the younger brother of Bob Crowley, who has emerged in the last decade as one of the world’s top stage designers, and it’s only necessary to recall the visual aspects of "Carousel" and Tom Stoppard’s "Hapgood," both at Lincoln Center, and Eugene O’Neill’s "The Iceman Cometh" and David Hare’s "Amy’s View" on Broadway to understand the reasons behind his great reputation.
It might seem obvious that the designer paved the way into the theater for his younger brother, but the truth is significantly different.
"There are 17 years between Bob and me and my father always said I was a costly accident," Crowley said. "My parents wanted to make certain there was a relationship between us as brothers, despite all those years, so after Bob had moved to London and started working, they’d send me over to visit on a regular basis."
The director doesn’t think his brother was always terribly happy to see him, but those visits to London made an impression.
"I suppose that hanging around theaters because of Bob sort of lured me to it," he said.
Although John Crowley had no particular interest in the stage, he’d tag along after his brother, who had no choice but to take him with him to rehearsals and technical sessions.
"I’d just sort of sit there in the corner," he remembered, "but then, when I was about 15 or 16, I started to appreciate what was going on in front of me, and I saw a couple of really seminal productions."
Crowley remembers in particular a couple of shows his brother did with director Adrian Noble, who’s now running the Royal Shakespeare Company. One of them was a production of "Macbeth," and another was called "The Plantagenets," a reworking of the Shakespearean Wars of the Roses cycle, done over the course of a single day.
"It was really around that time that I realized that it was something I wanted to be a part of," he said.
At that point, Crowley went to university to study English and philosophy. "Somehow I guess I just stumbled or fell into the drama society and started directing, because I was the only one who seemed to know what to do," he said. "After all, I’d seen a lot of the technical side of things when I was visiting Bob."
But it was an American play, Arthur Miller’s "The Crucible," that brought Crowley his first serious attention as a director. The year was 1994.
"I did that on the main stage at the Abbey," he said. "It was an extraordinary thing for Patrick Mason, who was running the Abbey at the time, to trust me with that important a production, because I was only 25 at the moment. I had directed just two plays professionally, one of them in the Peacock, which is the Abbey’s downstairs space, the summer before. That play in the Peacock was Donal O’Kelly’s "Asylum, Asylum," and on the strength of that, Mason gave me the Main Stage. There were some murmurings on the part of some of the Abbey’s Board Members that he’d lost his mind."
The following year, Crowley did a production of Pirandello’s "Six Characters in Search of an Author" at the Abbey and his reputation was enhanced even further.
Crowley said he feels that the New York production of "Juno and the Paycock" may prove to be even more satisfying than the one he did last year at the Donmar Warehouse, where he serves as associate director.
"The audience is on three sides at the Donmar and the state is about the size of a boxing ring," he said. "It’s a gorgeous space for intimacy, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do the play there, to give the audience the feeling of almost sitting in the rooms where the tenement family lived, because I wanted to enhance the degree of psychological accuracy and realism that I hoped to bring to bear.
"I think sometimes ‘Juno’ is produced a little like vaudeville, because O’Casey loved broad comedy, but I think that that kind of approach can rob the darker side of the play of some of its power if it’s played too much for laughs."
Crowley was happy with the degree of intimacy he achieved with "Juno" at the Donmar, but there was nevertheless, he said, something lacking, which was one of the reasons he jumped at the opportunity Todd Haimes, the Roundabout’s artistic director, gave him to come over and "revisit" the play for a New York production.
"I was striving for a kind of almost documentary realism with it, which I couldn’t do at the Donmar," he said. "I wanted to use archival footage of the Civil War, and that wasn’t possible in the London production, because there’s no depth at the Donmar, and no one place where you can put a screen and have everyone on three sides see it. So we had to abandon those ideas.
"Now, since the Gramercy is a converted cinema anyway, R’ Smith, the designer, and I could bring all that to life again. The first thing the audience sees is a large, white screen. We have about a minute and a half of film footage to show the people what was going on in the streets, or had been until recently."
"Juno and the Paycock" was first performed only two years after the events it describes, namely incidents in the bitter Civil War, which came after the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which had been signed in December 1921. The war itself had fully ended less than a year before an Abbey audience first saw "Juno."
"It’s hard in London, where modern audience don’t, I think, even know that there was ever such a thing as a Civil War in Ireland, and when they see people firing at each other, and bombs going off, they assume it’s Ireland versus England," Crowley said. "I think the same is true here, with the exception of people who have an interest in Irish history, and who have been brought up with an appreciation of it. I think that a lot of average theatergoers don’t necessarily have that information, and it’s crucial to understand all that about this play, and that’s the sort of political hinterland that O’Casey assumed his audience knew when he was writing it in Dublin."
John Crowley considers the realities of the Irish Civil War as surreal as anything in Jonathan Swift’s "Gulliver’s Travels."
"It’s a particularly dark and horrific chapter in Irish history," he said, "and it’s vital for an audience to understand that there are not English soldiers in the streets, that the English had gone. This time it’s Irishmen versus Irishmen."
At the Roundabout, "Juno and the Paycock" is back behind a proscenium arch again, and John Crowley is pleased. "The play is happier behind a proscenium," he concluded in his gentle Corkonian tones. "It just fits."