by Hugh Hunter
The Irish Heritage Theatre celebrates the 100-year anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Dublin with its revival of “The Plough and the Stars,” the final play in Sean O’Casey’s great trilogy about the wars for independence in Ireland.
The “starry plow” was the calling card of the Irish Citizen Army, symbolizing their desire to take total control of their destiny. O’Casey was first a member, then a critic of the movement.
The major set is a slum tenement in Dublin (set design Teddy Moseanu and director Peggy Mecham). At first, Nora and Jack Clitheroe (Victoria Rose Bonito and Harry Watermeier) are the major characters. Nora craves a tidy, middle class life while Jack hears the drum roll of the Citizens’ Army.
Act two is set inside a pub where we meet a range of Irish folks, conflicted and brawling. Outside, a polished orator (presumably, Padraic Pearse), urges the Irish to shed blood for the noble cause.
But this rhetoric is worlds removed from the vernacular talk of the publicans. And at this point “Plough” turns into a play with a collective protagonist, like Gorky’s “The Lower Depths,” concerned with the schism between reality and stated ideals.
They pair off to fight. Mrs Gogan (Michelle Pauls) is a Catholic mother who gets into it with Bessie Burgess (Mary Pat Walsh), a Protestant loyalist. Young Covey (Kevin Rodden) is a Communist who mocks elderly Peter Flynn (John Cannon) for his effete, comical militarism.
Rosie (Kyra Baker) is a prostitute who finds revolution talk bad for business. She is rebuffed by Covey, who turns out to be a sexual prude. Fluther (John Schultz), fortified with generous supplies of alcohol, takes up the cudgels in her defense.
“Plough” is full of dark irony. Bessie and Mrs. Gogan patch it up and join the store looters. Fluther romances whore Rosie and seems more honorable than Jack, who abandons Nora for the cause. And a couple of English Tommies ignore the corpse on the tenement floor as they pop in for a spot of tea.
It was all too much for the Irish, and the debut of “Plough” at the Dublin Abbey in 1926 sparked a riot. But O’Casey’s play outlived the furor. “Plough” hits on something big and universal. People are not glorious, but their virtue-spouting leaders can make them worse.
My favorite war was the Fourth Crusade (1202-04), convened by Pope Innocent III to free Jerusalem from the infidels. But the Crusaders got no farther than Constantinople, looted the Christian city and returned to Europe. Unfortunately, no O’Casey was around to commemorate the achievement.
The Irish Heritage Theatre is located at 1714 Delancey Place. “The Plough and the Stars” runs from May 26 to June 11. Tickets available at 215-735-0630.