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"A.R.T. Brings On Hell of War with Abbey Theatre’s ‘The Plough and the Stars’”

Reviewed by Michael Hoban

"The Plough and the Stars" - Written by Sean O’Casey; Directed by Sean Holmes, and staged by the Abbey Theatre of Dublin. Presented by the American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, MA, through October 9.

War is hell. Unfortunately, the run up to entering into such conflicts is often sold by its proponents with such a fevered bluster that its allure is nearly impossible to resist. And when the chest-beating nationalist rhetoric is delivered in the sweet siren song of patriotism, we take the bait again and again, like an abused spouse of a chronically drunken and unfaithful partner, forgetting that the outcome of engaging in this dance once again will nearly always end the same – in pain and misery.

Such is the case in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, now being presented by the Abbey Theatre of Dublin at the A.R.T. in Cambridge. And when the rebels of the Irish Citizens Army are being fired up on the eve of the Easter Rising with rousing speeches like, “Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. . . There are many things more horrible than bloodshed, and slavery is one of them!” – it’s easy to understand why a downtrodden population would seize on such noble ideals and act without thinking things through. But as we see (and recall from history), the horror of the actual war soon erases that starry-eyed notion with sobering its reality.

This version of the classic opens with a self-conscious young woman walking onstage and beginning to sing a hauntingly beautiful version of “The Soldier’s Song”, before she interrupts herself to cough and spit blood onto the lyric sheet, a disturbing metaphor for the events about to unfold. Director Sean Holmes has chosen to update the play to the present from its original setting in 1916, by updating the clothing and adding cable television, plastic shot glasses and cups to the pub scenes, and even adds some punk flavored tunes in between scenes, but the entire text remains intact.

We first meet the characters in their home, a living room in a tenement building in Dublin (perfectly depicted by a three-story steel scaffolding that serves as the staircase outside the flats), and the initial dialogue focuses on religion and politics, with a healthy dose of gossip thrown in. Young Covey, an idealistic socialist dressed in a generic fast food worker’s uniform, jaws with and taunts old Uncle Peter who is fastidiously dressing in his outlandish military-style uniform (complete with ostrich plume) before heading to the “meeting” where the revolutionary fires will be stoked. And when a box with a beautiful new hat arrives, neighbor Mrs. Gogan (mother of the young woman – dying from tuberculosis – who opened the play), rips its recipient, Nora, for thinking she is too good for the rest of the neighborhood folk. As does Bessie, a bitter and drunken upstairs neighbor whose son is fighting on the Western Front.

Nora arrives home, and, as the only seemingly sane voice, restores some semblance of order – at least for the time being. But when her husband Jack and she are later celebrating her birthday with a tryst, the couple are interrupted as he called to duty for the uprising (something she failed to inform him of earlier, driving him into a rage). She begs and pleads with him to stay, to no avail. And the wheels are set in motion for the bloody conflict which comes in Act II.

Although the play is laced with plenty of humorous observations and wonderful slices of the poverty-stricken but somewhat hopeful lives of its protagonists , this is a powerful and bleak look at the up-close ravages of wartime. And while the Easter Rising led to Ireland’s independence a half-dozen years later (with the exception of Northern Ireland), there were over 2,000 lives lost in the conflict, and as the play shows, countless families torn apart. But there are also examples of how humanity can really shine, as demonstrated by the transformation of the bitter Bessie (a painfully convincing Hilda Fay) into a caretaker for Nora when she falls, and heavy drinking Fluther Good’s (David Ganly in a memorable seriocomic performance) consistently good deeds.

The performances overall are tremendous, especially Kate Stanley Brennan as Nora, as she slides from the voice of reason into madness, Ciaran O’Brien as the annoying Young Covey, and James Hayes as the proud but aging Uncle Peter. Like the A.R.T’s other import from across the pond this season – the brilliant 1984 – the production may not leave you feeling good, but it’s well worth a view. For more info, go to:

American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.), Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Runs September 29 – October 9
More information:

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide