Review: Ireland 100: ‘The Plough and the Stars’ at The Kennedy Center

Make no mistake about it. World War I kicked the crap out of patriotic idealism.

Lloyd Cooney as Lt. Langon and Liam Heslin as Capt. Brennan. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

Lloyd Cooney (Lt. Langon) and Liam Heslin (Capt. Brennan). Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

Just ask Wilfred Owen. His “Dulce et Decorum et” is one of the most powerful denunciations of the concept of “the glorious war” ever writ.

Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars is another, and it’s only about the 1916 Easter Rising, the most significant insurrection against British colonial rule in over 100 years.

Ireland’s Abbey Theatre brought its production of the play to the Kennedy Center’s Ireland 100, a century of Irish Art and Culture, and the production breaks the heart and the spirit of liberation movements everywhere.

O’Casey’s play focuses not so much of the patriotic, nationalistic spirit of the revolt against British Imperial rule as it does on the citizenry doing their best to survive in a bleak situation.

And there are plenty of lost souls everywhere.

At the center of the play is heroine Nora Clitheroe, played with a scintillating combination of sassy sexuality and brassy balls by Kate Stanley Brennan. In other words, she is as hot as she is fiercely determined to save her hero husband from destruction.

That husband, Jack, is one of the leaders of the Easter Uprising. As played by Ian-Lloyd Anderson, his internal conflict, between his domestic bliss and his revolutionary zeal, bubbles over in abundance on more than one occasion.

His is the heart of revolutionaries everywhere: the joy of building a life, even if under foreign occupation, and the inherent call to freedom.

This power-couple forms the nucleus of O’Casey’s intensely critical play, not so much of the revolution itself, but of the people (and their iconic significance) surrounding the revolution.

There is young Covey, the theoretical Marxist, who, as played by the feisty Ciarán O’Brien, couldn’t have worked with his muscles a day in his life. His scenes with carpenter Fluther Good, played with rowdy good spirits by David Ganly, could not highlight the lunacy of theoretical idealists arguing with material  practitioners more clearly.

Another point of contrast is created by the character of Bessie Burgess, a protestant, who sent her son to fight with the British in World War I. Eileen Walsh gives her an intense  hatred, which only adds to the potency of her eventual embrace of the play’s other women in the heat of war.

Janet Moran gives her Mrs. Gogan an earthy determination. When she and Ms. Burgess loot a neighboring store together, their previous combat is all but forgotten.

One of the funniest, and most ludicrous characters, Peter Flynn, is played by James Hayes. He dresses up in his Green Coat (think of the revolutionary war’s Red Coats), his furor for the revolution not a bit diminished, the hopelessness of the Irish cause seems all but assured.

Rounding out the cast is a strong ensemble of characters played by Tony Clay, Rachel Gleeson, Liam Heslin, Ger Kelly, and Nima Taleghani, with Nyree Yergainharsian taking the part of Rosie Redmond, the prostitute. Her scenes with young Covey and Good in the public house were a true delight.

The set design by Jon Bausor was dominated by a three story tower, iconic of all occupied territories.

Costume, Lighting, and Sound Designers Catherine Fay, Paul Koegan, and Philip Stewart (who all added the music) added to emotionally dichotomous clashes that ripple through the play’s realistic structure.

Director Sean Holmes not only uses the tower to wonderful effect, toppling it with wonder, but he finds ways to give all of O’Casey’s dramatic elements a distinctly contemporary feel.

In this way, he honors the play’s historical underpinnings while giving it a powerfully relevant modern significance.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 20 minute intermission.

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The Plough and the Stars played May 18 and 19, 2016 at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater-2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For future events, check The Kennedy Center’s performance calendar.

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