There’s Fluther Good (Michael Mellamphy), a jovial carpenter who uses the word “derogatory” for anything that’s not good (“every derogatory thought went out o’ me mind”). And socialist sympathizer Young Covey (James Russell), who loves needling elderly nationalist Peter Flynn (Robert Langdon Lloyd).
Slowly, though, dark undercurrents become obvious. A neighbor loyal to the British, Bessie (Maryann Plunkett), angrily berates anyone within earshot. Jack Clitheroe (Adam Petherbridge) discovers that because his wife, Nora (Clare O’Malley), doesn’t want him involved, she hid the letter announcing his promotion in the Irish Citizen Army.
We are still a few months off from the Easter Rising of April 1916, when the local Republicans rebelled against British rule, but the atmosphere is charged.
As the play moves forward in time, a pub’s regulars listen to the escalating rhetoric on the street outside. “Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood,” says a warmonger (voiced by Ciaran O’Reilly, one of the founders of the Irish Rep). From amicably jostling, friends and neighbors are now at each other’s throats.
The violence Nora dreaded eventually explodes, and the play’s ending has the ring of classic tragedy: deaths onstage and off, madness, the overwhelming feeling that the world has turned to chaos.
Charlotte Moore’s naturalistic production makes us care for everybody, no matter how vituperative, pigheaded or cartoonishly comical, and the cast is largely excellent. A mainstay of Richard Nelson’s Apple and Gabriel plays, Plunkett is a standout as an embattled, often hostile woman whose humanity is progressively revealed. Her final scene is a stunner.
Then again, each character is lovingly rendered, honoring the play’s complexity — a complexity that, incidentally, did not go over well when the show had its premiere at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, provoking the ire of Irish nationalists who might have preferred a less nuanced approach.
“The Plough and the Stars” (the title refers to a flag of the republican movement) holds a special place for Irish Rep: It was the company’s first production, back in 1988. Now the show is featured in an O’Casey season as part of the playwright’s Dublin Trilogy, which also includes “The Shadow of a Gunman” (1923) and “Juno and the Paycock” (1924). The same actors perform the plays — which stand alone — on alternating days, with a marathon of all three most Saturdays.
You don’t go to Irish Rep expecting razzmatazz productions, and sometimes the offerings can be overly conservative from a formal standpoint. It’s a fair certainty that the latest “hot” director is not likely to drop by.
But “The Plough and the Stars” illustrates the company’s approach at its most successful: It’s hard not to be swept away by such a good yarn, and the show has an elemental appeal that testifies to the timeless power of a story well told.
‘The Plough and the Stars’
Through June 22 at Irish Repertory Theater, Manhattan; 212-727-2737, irishrep.org. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.