The Boston Globe: In 'Plough,' poverty, war, and the portent of a violent climax

From left: : Ian-Lloyd Anderson Lloyd Cooney, and Liam Heslin in “The Plough and the Stars.”
Publication date: 
September 29, 2016
Author: 
Patti Hartigan
Photographer: 
Ros Kavanagh

CAMBRIDGE — This year marks the centennial of the 1916 Easter Rising, the Dublin rebellion that ultimately led to Ireland’s independence from the British, the perfect time for the Abbey Theatre to resurrect Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars.” The play, which unfolds during the insurrection, inspired riots at the Abbey in 1926, but it has become a mainstay in the Irish theater’s repertory.

 

Yet the touring production at the American Repertory Theater is not your old granddad’s “Plough.” Directed by Sean Holmes, it incorporates head-banging music, contemporary and classic costumes, fluorescent lights, and a hand mike. Holmes aims to underscore the alienation and trauma that come from poverty and hardship, both in 1916 and 2016. When it works, it is chilling. When it doesn’t, it drags.

 

The production begins with Mollser, a girl dying of consumption, singing “A Soldier’s Song,” the Irish national anthem. Let’s just say that the prologue lets us know that blood will flow and people will die.

 

This is followed by a tableau of all the characters onstage, showing that the home of Jack and Nora Clitheroe is a suffocating place with zero privacy. They live in sparse quarters circumscribed with stark metal scaffolding. This is a place where people live so close they know each other’s business and could come to blows at any moment — and we’re just talking about daily life, not the revolution.

 

The goal is to illustrate the trials of impoverished folks who live on the periphery of history. The residents of the tenement are reaching for scraps, not nationalism. Mrs. Gogan, the nosy neighbor obsessed with death, barges in and makes herself at home. Fluther, a carpenter, stays too long. Uncle Peter fusses over his dandy uniform. The Young Covey — a socialist stand-in for O’Casey — bickers with everyone. Bessie Burgess, a loyalist drunk, shouts from the floor above. And Jack and Nora crave a minute alone to do what young couples do. When everyone finally leaves, they lock the door and pull out the couch bed.

 

This is clearly a director’s production. Holmes has the actors address their speeches to the audience, a technique of epic theater that creates a numbing distance. And the production is riddled with anachronisms. During the love scene, Jack picks up the microphone and sings an Irish ballad while doing an Elvis impersonation. In a bar scene, the barkeep uses a remote control to turn on the sound of rebel leader Patrick Pearse intoning about the need for violence.

 

At 2½ hours, the production drags its feet in the first half, but it picks up speed in the devastating second half. Jack, angry at his wife’s deception, goes off to join the rebels at the General Post Office, and chaos ensues. For all the talk of freedom, though, the people in the tenement are trapped. Mollser remains onstage throughout the entire play, as if locked in the metal scaffolding of her shabby flat. During the bar scene, Nora sits alone at home, bored and lonely. Violence rumbles below the surface. Fear is in the air. It’s in the bar where Fluther defends the prostitute Rosie Redmond. It’s in the eyes of the young rebels. It’s in the face of Nora, pregnant and terrified that her husband won’t return.

 

The contemporary setting is hardly subtle, but the smaller touches resonate. A soldier stumbles over long words when he reads a letter aloud, making it clear that he didn’t have a proper education. Mrs. Gogan takes off her earrings before a barroom brawl. Looters return with finery and food, as well as a washing machine. A beer can has a mind of its own.

 

As Nora, Kate Stanley Brennan is sexy and needy at the same time, and when she breaks down, her eyes are empty, her voice sing-song. Ian-Lloyd Anderson’s Jack matches her sexual chemistry, although he underplays the violence simmering beneath his green uniform. David Ganly’s blustering Fluther is a marvelous foil for Ciarán O’Brien’s Young Covey, who lectures about the rights of the proletariat and the shortcomings of religion. Janet Moran’s Mrs. Gogan begins as a strong woman who won’t shut up, yet she falls, hard, at the end. But the night really belongs to Hilda Fay as Bessie Burgess, the irascible neighbor who shows true heroism and humanity at the end. Dressed in jeans that fall a wee bit too low on her waist, she walks with a combination of stagger and swagger.

 

These people are suffocating: from drink, from talk, from lack of opportunity. Despair is evident in the production design. Paul Keogan’s lighting features cold fluorescent bulbs. Catherine Fay’s contemporary costumes are straight out of a thrift store, while the period uniforms are picture-perfect. Jon Bausor’s set is furnished with second-hand furniture, with a lone space heater for warmth.

 

The stage is dominated by that cold scaffolding, which comes tumbling down when things fall apart. A soldier dies onstage. A child dies. A sniper looms. Loud booms echo in the audience. O’Casey’s cynicism hits home. Bessie calls the Irish “a lot of vipers,” but she is the bravest of them all and ends up making the ultimate sacrifice.

 

While tedious at first, Holmes’s production is shattering in the end, when the terror of 1916 becomes immediate and inescapable and of our time. A dead body lies covered in a makeshift shroud. Offstage, there are calls for an ambulance. Meanwhile, two gun-toting Tommys settle in for a nice cup of tea. One sips while the other sings “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” All the auteur tricks are stripped away, and we’re left with the heartbreak of poverty and war.

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