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Theater Review: A modest but skillful staging of an ambitious O’Casey play

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS, by Sean O’Casey. Directed by Dermott O’Brien. Featuring Fergus Loughnane and Paul Dallaghan. T. Schreiber Studio, Gloria Maddox Theater, 151 West 26th St., NYC. Through Nov. 21.

Sean O’Casey’s 1926 masterpiece "The Plough and the Stars," the last to arrive of the three tragicomedies that make up what is informally known as the great Dublin playwright’s "Tenement Trilogy," is easily the most difficult to stage and the least audience-friendly of the trio of enduring, resounding plays.

First there had been "The Shadow of a Gunman," in 1923, with its single rooming house setting and its straight-ahead melodramatic plot, which combine to make it as easy to grasp, at least on the most immediate level, as any Bruce Willis thriller.

Then came perhaps the most monumental of the three plays, 1924’s "Juno and the Paycock," again with just one location, the rooms occupied by the troubled Boyle family, and a readily comprehended cast made up of a single Dublin slum family and its associates. "The Plough and the Stars," the title of which refers to the flag of the Irish Citizen Army, requires four completely different sets, and involves 14 characters, only three of whom, a young married couple and the bride’s doddering, barely tolerated uncle, are provided with identities that are immediately clear.

The others, though not unique in the annals of O’Casey, are a larger-than-usual gaggle of neighbors, workmen, street people and political associates, with a clutch of occupying English soldiers thrown in to further complicate the mix.

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Add to this the fact that O’Casey’s uniquely fanciful rendering of urban Dublin tenement argot reached fever pitch with this play, threatening to distance audiences even more emphatically than the work’s inherent complexities have already done.

Despite its stumbling blocks, "The Plough and the Stars" is fairly frequently produced, due largely to the variety and depth of its portraiture, and, to be sure, to the richness and resonance of its language and its humor.

The play, with its roots in one of the most significant events in modern Irish history, the 1916 Easter Rising against the British, is available in a basically admirable production on a New York stage once again, this time on the small, flexible playing space of the Gloria Maddox Theater at the T. Schreiber Studio on the seventh floor of an office structure at 151 West 26th St., where it will play through Nov. 21.

Directed with insight and imagination by the Irish-born Dermott O’Brien, making his debut with the Schreiber organization, this staging of the thorny play boasts a reasonably high performance level, with two little-known young Irish actors doing the sort of work that will almost certainly lead to a good deal of further work.

Dubliner Paul Dallaghan, a Trinity College graduate and yoga instructor, gives an energized and riveting performance as the politically roistering Covey, while Galway-born Fergus Loughnane, who did standout work in Larry Kirwan’s "Blood" at the New York International Fringe Festival two years ago, is utterly compelling and credible as the doomed Jack Clitheroe, the young husband in whose tenement flat the play’s first act takes place.

Anyone who regularly casts Irish plays on the New York stage would be well advised to get down to 26th Street and take a look at "The Plough and the Stars," if only to observe the work of two young Irish performers, new to the scene but virtually bursting with stage potential.

And the modest production has other virtues, not the least of them the strong performance turned in by Bonnie-Ann Black as the viciously gossiping Mrs. Cogan, always ready for a fight, even a tussle over possession of a discarded baby carriage in a pub while a war rages unobserved in the streets beyond the saloon door.

Equally fine are Tony Caffrey’s Uncle Peter, Ed Clark’s Fluther, to whom some of O’Casey’s most intricate language falls, and Rachel Permann’s Rosie Redmond, with the actress unafraid to show the nastier aspects of the local prostitute, as opposed to settling for the humor in the character, which is all too often done.

Special mention should be accorded actress Black, formerly one of the mainstays of the long-established, recently disbanded Thomas Davis Player. Her work on the stage of the Gloria Maddox is so authentic in feeling that it’s difficult to believe she’s not a born Dubliner.

Two other performances, Glen Lincoln’s Bessie Burgess and Caroline Hay’s Nora Clitheroe, suffered from shrillness and nervousness at an early performance, but have probably settled down and improved as the production moved through its playing schedule.

As Britons out of place in a world not of their making, Scott Boulware, Walter Hyman, Chris Keating and Joe MacDougall do well with Lt. Langon, Capt. Brennan, Cpl. Stoddart and Sgt. Tinley, respectively, as does the hardy Richard Simulcik as the nameless bartender who tolerates Rosie’s professional maneuverings.

Having the bifurcated audience seated in two groups, facing one another across the playing area, doesn’t make O’Casey’s masterful but difficult language precisely lucid, but for an audience willing to work a bit, O’Brien’s stripped-for-action staging of "The Plough and the Stars" has ample rewards, perhaps particularly the opportunity to see Fergus Loughnane and Paul Dallaghan, relatively, early in what, with any luck at all, should develop into rich and varied careers.

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