Ireland’s renowned Abbey Theatre premiered Sean O’Casey’s provocative The Plough and the Stars in 1926 and revived it this spring to mark the centenary of the county’s bloody Easter uprising in 1916. It’s the Abbey’s 57th staging of O’Casey’s hard-hitting story about a society tearing itself apart over political warfare, widening class division, poverty, friends and families torn apart by war and other destructive forces that are relevant today.
The play recounts the lives of neighbors in a poor Dublin tenement and in the local rough and tumble pub named The Plough and the Stars. The action takes place from November 2015 through the bloody Easter weekend of 1916 – the most important months in modern Irish history. The great playwright has created fourteen well-defined and believable characters in shocking – as well as much needed witty – and plausible situations that are at the core of the plot.
Acclaimed director Sean Holmes successfully updated O’Casey’s powerful and compelling piece of great theater on many levels, but the production ran 2 ½ hours because the plot wandered off course too often with overwrought melodramatic scenes that were popular in theater and film during O’Casey’s most productive years.
Melodrama aside, the director’s skilled blocking and pacing in collaboration with an ensemble of highly talented Irish actors and the Abbey’s in-house casting director, Kelly Phelan, made for a grand night in the theater.
The compelling characters include Jack and Nora Clitheroes (believably played by Ian-Lloyd Anderson and Kate Stanley Brennan), a happy young couple, who suffer the price of war; Nora’s old bigger-than-life uncle Peter (who James Hayes plays as an delightful curmudgeon); and Jack’s cousin Covey, a young and progressive political activist (that has actor Ciarán O’Brien superbly delivering some of the wittiest lines).
Key to the story are Mrs. Coogan, an ageing widow ( portrayed with a remarkable range of emotions by Janet Moran); her teenage daughter, Mollser who has tuberculosis (and to whom Mahnoor Saad brings a touching sadness); an in-your-face Protestant mother Bessie Burgess whose son is fighting with the British army in WW1; (brought to life as an hysteric by Eileen Walsh); Fluther Good (David Ganly) whose sprightly carpenter is a memorable comedic performance; Ger Kelly’s always-in-the-moment performance as the bartender; and Rosie Redmond (naughtily but-nicely acted by Nyree Yergainharsian), a tawdry and bawdy prostitute with a presence that fills the stage.
The superb Irish actors turned each part into a star turn.
The director also had the good fortune to collaborate with an equally gifted design team: Jon Bausor’s imaginative and actor-friendly set design, especially the versatile tower construction; character-perfect costume designs for fourteen actors by Catherine Fay; Paul Keogan’s spot-on lighting design, and Philip Stewart’s music and sound design that made every syllable and note crystal clear.
The Plough and the Stars production is now on tour in Cork, Wexford, Limerick and Galway through May 28. The North American Tour, in association with Cusack Projects Limited, moves on to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC; American Repertory Theater, Harvard University, Massachusetts; Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, University of Pennsylvania; Peak Performances at Montclair State University, New Jersey; and the Southern Theatre, Columbus, Ohio presented by CAPA and The Ohio State University.
For American tour dates and tickets, Google the above theaters for details. For a virtual tour of the acclaimed Abbey Theatre go to https://www.abbeytheatre.ie/
Special note for theatergoers; The Abbey Theatre has been updated with special attention to pleasing audiences by Keogan Architects and the renowned French theater designer, Jean-Guy Lecat. The new auditorium has a steeper rake and a new balcony with a continuous body of seating. The result is greatly improved sight lines, and a far greater sense of communal/shared experience. The improvements also include facilities for disabled patrons in the main theater and disable access to the second stage Peacock Theatre at basement level.
The Abbey is the very model of a modern major 21st-century theater.
(Hint: To better enjoy this review, please click on the slideshow and read the captions. Be sure to play the embedded video to see how the Abbey Theatre was rebuilt in 1963.)