Time:  September, 1922 – the height of the Irish Civil War
Place:  The two-room tenement apartment of the Boyle family in Dublin

What an abundant play unfolds, perfectly acted and beautifully produced by the Irish Repertory Theatre!

Only one in the Boyle family is earning a living, Juno, the mother.  Daughter Mary’s out on strike.  Son Johnny is severely wounded in fighting for Irish independence and half-crazed fearing retribution for betraying an Irish Republican Army comrad who lived in this same building.  And the father, “Captain” Jack, Juno’s preening paycock of a husband, is a hard drinking former merchant seaman, who runs off to the pub with his drinking “butty” Joxer even when a job comes walking in the door.

So money’s very short, when an English solicitor, Mr. Bentham, arrives with the news that Jack is about to receive a substantial inheritance.  Anticipating the windfall, the Boyles purchase handsome new furniture on credit.  And — icing on the cake — the handsome and professional Mr. Bentham is in love with beautiful Mary — or so it seems.  The Boyle’s stand to rise upward in the world on all counts.  It’s not giving too much away to say that things don’t work out that way.

In an idyllic interlude, Mary and a neighbor Maisie Madigan sing at the celebratory party at the Boyle’s apartment, a moment of joy, though with a portent:  a funeral is underway at the same time for the IRA comrade Johnny betrayed.  Life and death cling to one another in this play like two lovers dancing.

Among this outstanding cast, J. Smith-Cameron is strong yet tender as Juno, the mother who keeps things going at a time “the centre cannot hold,” as W. B. Yeats wrote in The Second Coming (Yeats was Juno and the Paycock’s original producer in 1924 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin).  O’Casey’s language is in itself highly poetic and as Jack Boyle, Ciaran O’Reilly is particularly effective in bringing out the poetry O’Casey finds in the natural speach in the Irish dialect.

Mary Mallen as the young Mary is principled, warmly feminine, and in love with plenty of good reasons, which don’t always take you where you want to go. Terry Donnelly is a delightfully vibrant life-of-the-party as the neighbor Maisie Madigan.  And an absolute favorite — simply fascinating to watch — is John Keating as Joxer Daly, Jack Boyle’s go-along-with-the-flow and duplicitous drinking partner.  In a play of strong characterizations, his goes farthest beyond type into unforgettable and irresistible idiosyncracy.

Populated by richly drawn characters, Juno and the Paycock moves at a rollicking and yet lifelike pace between loyalty and betrayal, rapture and despair, lofty idealism and down-to-earth reality.  I’m eager to see the other plays of O’Casey’s: Dublin Trilogy, Shadow of a Gunman, and The Plough and the Stars, but “meanwhile” I’m grateful to Irish Repertory Theatre for this exciting and fulfilling production.

Juno and the Paycock  plays at Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan’s Chelsea through December 29th, 2013. Extended through January 26, 2013.