Deadly, violent, and unfairly matched, the 1916 Easter Rising was a landmark in the fight for an independent Irish republic, the first act of armed rebellion by the Irish against the British for over a century.
To mark the 100th anniversary of this significant date in Ireland’s history, the Irish Heritage Theater (in coproduction with Plays & Players) is staging THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS, by Sean O’Casey. (In 2015, IHT produced the two earlier installments in O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy). Directed by Peggy Mecham, THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS dives deeply into the lives of Irish tenement dwellers—normal people struggling to find a way to cope with their situation—at the time of the Rising.
The beautiful vignettes center on multiple facets of life, providing a close look at the human stories behind the Easter Rising. Central to the play is the story of Nora Clitheroe (played poignantly by Victoria Rose Bonito), a character driven mad by the absence of her husband, Jack Clitheroe (played convincingly by Harry Watermeier), a vain, conflicted man eager to fight for glory.
However, the play looks closely at the lives of many others. Diverse characters populate the Irish tenements: snarky Mrs. Gogan (Michelle Pauls) and her sick daughter (Barbaraluz Orlanda), quarreling Uncle Peter (John Cannon) and enthusiastic communist Covey (Kevin Rodden), seductive and salacious Rosie (Kyra Baker) with bartender (Cris Welti), and cowardly Captain Brennan (Dexter Anderson).
But the beauty of the play is that though each character has a specific role, personality, and stereotype, in the end, even jokester Fluther (John Schultz) contributes in a meaningful, uncharacteristically mature ways, and the confrontational British loyalist, Bessie Burgess (captivating Mary Pat Walsh), takes on a positive role, assisting her neighbors in powerful, but unexaggerated ways.
Though the first half of the play is a little slow, with long conversations in the Irish accents that my untrained ear found very convincing, the second half of the play comes alive with subtle actions that had great impact. The humanity shines through, with each character showing their multi-faceted personalities in turn.
At the close, the gravity of the situation of the poor, outnumbered Irish is framed by the act of two British soldiers (played by Jimmy Guckin and Eric Dann), sitting beside a dead body, an Irish civilian, while they sip tea and listen to gunfire outside.
Lights by Andrew Cowles focused each scene and, along with sound design by Zack McKenna, set the scene. Sets by Teddy Moseanu and Peggy Mecham were effective, though I wondered at the choice of red beams in the building of structures to create windows and doorways—a strange contrast to the show’s focus on a historical period. However, many other aspects of the scenery were very well-done, including a bar scene that stood out as particularly detailed and well designed.
The back of the building served as the perfectly suited backdrop, with an old brick wall that fit beautifully with the scenes and suggested the appropriate environment. However, during scene transitions when video footage put together by Alexis Mayer, which presumably showed footage from times of war, the brick did not allow for the projections to be clearly seen.
Peggy Mecham brought to life the work of famous playwright Sean O’Casey and successfully painted a picture of a dark time in history—one in which every person, different though they may have been, came together to support one another selflessly and without pretense. The large production, put on by a sixteen-person person cast (including the above and Ian Agnew, Mark B. Knight, Carlos Forbes, and David Kuong), seemed a huge undertaking.
The actors did their roles great justice and allowed me to delve deeper into the human side of the story. On the surface, it may be a story of a history of oppression, a small country’s resolve to fight, and a brutal battle. But all history is built on smaller stories, the human element behind everything we talk about in school. THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS takes up a few of these stories and helps us to temporarily enter the human side of a well-known historical event.
[Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Street] May 26-June 11, 2016; irishheritagetheatre.org.