Bringing Out the Bite in O'Casey

Joe Dowling's version of an Irish classic finds steely relevance beneath the comic surface. THEATER: INTERVIEW

`IRELAND only half free'll never be at peace while she has a son left to pull a trigger,'' says Johnny, a casualty of war in Sean O'Casey's tragedy ``Juno and the Paycock.'' That line was true when O'Casey wrote his Irish classic in 1925, and unfortunately it's true today, 65 five years later, as the production at Washington's Arena Stage (through Sunday) so poignantly reminds us.

Its director, Joe Dowling, Ireland's premier stage director, talks about the contemporary bite of O'Casey in light of the Troubles in Northern Ireland: ``Yes, the parallels are there. I think the differences are there also. The present Northern conflict is very different from what happened in the Irish Civil War,'' which began in 1922.

This Irish classic deals with the bleak life of the Boyle family, living in hunger and poverty in a Dublin tenement during that civil war: Jack Boyle, the proud peacock of the title who is drinking his life away; his unflinching wife, Juno; their shattered son, Johnny, badly wounded in the 1916 Easter Rising; and their idealistic daughter, Mary, who reads and dreams of a man who will take her away from the this poor, violent life.

Dowling says of the parallels to today: ``I think it's interesting O'Casey really was a great lover of peace, a man who believed absolutely in pacifism. ... And when he has in the mouth of Johnny that line, `Ireland only half free...,' it's immediately countered by Juno, who says, `No bread's a lot betther than half a loaf,' reminding him, `You lost your principles when you lost your arm. That is the only principles that are any good to the working man.'

``So in many ways, O'Casey gives us the point of view of the [Irish] Republican gunman, [but] he does not support it. Nor do the vast majority of Irish people. And Juno's plea at the end, `Take away our hearts o' stone, and give us hearts o' flesh! Take away this murdherin' hate, an' give us Thine own eternal love!' - that is something which one only wishes that those engaged in violence in Northern Ireland would listen to.

``...Since patrols started in Northern Ireland there have been far too many heroes, far too many Johnny Boyles, people taken out and shot, people shot in front of their own families, innocent people murdered in the streets by people of the IRA. ... The nature of what's happening in Northern Ireland today is something that O'Casey would have totally disagreed with.''

We are talking on a very pacific morning: A playful breeze ripples the harbor across from Arena Stage on this sunny blue day. Himself, Joe Dowling, looks like the actor he started out to be and occasionally still is. He is colorful: auburn hair, green eyes, ruddy Irish skin, pale shirt adorned with a blue-and-green tie brimming with red cherries. He wears running shoes with his tan trousers.

This production is a first for Dowling - the first time he's done O'Casey with an American cast, the first time he's done ``Juno'' in the round. His production is a steely and unsentimental version of this great play. Nor does the American cast sound like an Irish Spring commercial. ``I have this aversion to the stage Irish that's so often done in this country, the one that sells soap and things,'' says Dowling. ``...Nobody in Ireland speaks like that and never will. And also the sort of notion of the Irish as a kind of vague, fey, romantic people - it's blown away by this play. I mean, they're tough as nails. They have to be, to survive.

``We started from where the [American] actors are in their accent, and then [went] up to a sort of neutral state, which would be neither American nor Irish but somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. And I think they've done that very well.''

Is there a secret to staging O'Casey?

Forcing people to take him seriously, in spite of his great gift for comedy, says Dowling. ``If it's played as a lot of people do - as a soft, gentle play, rather than as a tough, hard, uncompromising play - I think then you can go very easily wrong with it. And people come out feeling it's just very dated and distant from their lives.''

In this searing production, O'Casey's words go by like bullets in the night that always find their target: the heart. It is in the pang of contrast between the tragedy and comedy that O'Casey most moves us.

In the second act of ``Juno,'' after showing us the despair of the Boyles' lives, O'Casey springs a rumored inheritance on them. The drab tenement is transformed with rented red-velvet furniture, a sense of gaiety. The family and friends dance, party, sing ``If You're Irish Come Into the Parlour.''

Then, Dowling says, ``in the middle of all this ... suddenly, without any intervening scene, O'Casey slaps you in the face and says, `Stop laughing, because while you're laughing, people are dying.'' A hearse goes by for the funeral of their neighbor, Mrs. Tancred's only son, found riddled by bullets, as she says, ``lyin' for a whole night stretched out on the side of a lonely counthry lane with his head, his darlin' head, that I often kissed an' fondled, half hidden in the wather of a runnin' brook....''

Says Dowling: ``I do think that's the genius of O'Casey, that juxtaposition between tragic and comic and back again.''

Being artistic director for seven years at an institution like Ireland's legendary national theater, the Abbey, didn't daunt Joe Dowling. ``A great deal of my time at the Abbey was spent fighting tradition.... We have to be a contemporary theater for Ireland now, and Ireland has changed very radically since its heyday, since Yeats and O'Casey and Single and Lady Gregory founded it.''

A graduate of University College in Dublin, Dowling is a son of Dublin married to a television anchorwoman. Dowling was manager of the Gaiety Theater until 1987, when he founded the Gaiety School of Acting, Ireland's only independent drama school. The Gaiety School is now his working base for the freelance directing of productions in Ireland and abroad, including Canada and the US - productions like the American premi`ere of Brian Friel's ``Translations'' at the Manhattan Theater Club and the world premi`ere of Friel's ``The Aristocrats.''

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