Irish Classical’s ‘Plough and the Stars’ explores the violent push for Irish independence - The Buffalo News
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Irish Classical’s ‘Plough and the Stars’ explores the violent push for Irish independence

In Sean O’Casey’s heart-wrenching play “The Plough and the Stars,” angry citizens gather in the streets of Dublin to listen to a bloodthirsty zealot rave about the glory of war.

“Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing,” the man bellows to the cheering crowd, “and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood.”

O’Casey lifted that gleefully violent line verbatim from a speech by Patrick Pearse, the spokesman and leader of the 1916 rebel insurrection against British rule known as the Easter Rising. In the play, now running in an even-keeled production directed by Derek Campbell in the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s Andrews Theatre, snippets of the speech seep through the open windows of a dingy Dublin pub.

The play’s real focus is the group of working-class Dubliners inside that pub, whose lives are torn apart by a revolutionary’s ignoble calls to violence in the noble pursuit of Irish independence.

Far from being an inaccessible exploration of a distant period in Irish history, Campbell’s production makes a valiant attempt to animate the lives and struggles of O’Casey’s characters for an American audience in 2014. Given the stark differences between the parlance of 1916 working-class Dublin and American language today, as well as a complex history of the Irish struggle for independence of which this play demands some understanding, this is no small task.

Theatergoers unaccustomed to Irish colloquialisms and accents should be aware that the language of the play, as the intermission chatter of the opening-night crowd confirmed, can sometimes be difficult to discern. But for the most part, the cast is good enough that when a phrase or a reference inevitably flies over your head, the actors’ body language and facial expressions help to fill in the blanks.

In the parlor of a Dublin tenement, we meet a colorful assortment of salt-of-the-earth characters. These include the young newlyweds Jack and Nora Clitheroe (Anthony Alcocer and Andrea Andolina), the boisterous house-cleaner Mrs. Gogan (Beth Donohue), a troublesome Protestant fruit vendor named Bessie Burgess (Josephine Hogan), a budding communist (Chris Kelly), the cantankerous old Peter Flynn (Gerry Maher) and Fluther Good (Vincent O’Neill), a bumbling but good-natured worker who always seems to be spoiling for a fight.

The first act is all comedy and very little tragedy, and the final act is exactly the opposite. Though we get little samples of the revolution gathering strength outside the tenement house walls in the first half, it is mostly devoted to building up the characters so that they can be torn down later.

There are few weak links in this fine cast. Highlights include spirited sparring between Donahue and Hogan’s fiery characters, who launch rapid-fire insults at one another with greater speed than the bullets flying in the streets. So do Kelly and Maher, whose antipathy is great fun to watch throughout. As the gallant but overconfident Fluther, O’Neill gives one of his most satisfying comic performances in memory.

Once the scene-setting and character-building is out of the way and the Easter Rising begins in earnest, O’Casey’s real goal – to show the quiet and unintended horrors of the rebellion – comes into focus. After the rebels declare the short-lived independence of the Irish Republic and set off days of fighting, the tenement residents huddle to face a grim reality and try in vain to dodge the crossfire.

Today, we can hear echoes of Pearse’s glorification of violence in the face of oppression both in the words of extremists like Cliven Bundy and in modern-day revolutionaries in wartorn Syria. To O’Casey, a pacifist who took plenty of fire for his critique of the Easter Rising, the sort of violence Pearse advocated wreaked untold havoc on innocent Dubliners, and that was enough to condemn the man and his movement.

But, as dramaturg Datie Mallinson suggested in her program note, it also lent a necessary fire to the independence movement that eventually succeeded in achieving many of its goals.

Almost a century after it was written, “The Plough and the Stars” stands as a vital history lesson, a prescient warning and an ever-relevant a question about the use of violence against oppression.


3 stars

What: “The Plough and the Stars”

When: Through May 18

Where: Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St.

Tickets: $39

Info: 853-4282,


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