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Laughter, woe — O’Casey style in ‘Juno and the Paycock’

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In a welcome and ambitious move, the Irish Repertory Theatre is devoting its season to the playwright Sean O’Casey, who lived between 1880 and 1964.

The Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage is decked out for this celebration so that the architecture of a 1922 Dublin tenement surrounds the audience. This enhancement is a fitting tribute to O’Casey’s long shadow across dramatic literature.

“Juno and the Paycock” has joined “The Shadow of a Gunman” to run in repertory, with the addition of “The Plough and the Stars” coming up. The O’Casey program also includes a film screening and a comprehensive series of live play readings.

The Irish Rep production unfolds under the sure hand of director Neil Pepe on a busman’s holiday from the Atlantic Theatre, where he is the longtime artistic director. O’Casey ripples through the greats who came after him: Beckett, Pinter, Friel and McDonagh for starters. You could even connect “The Honeymooners” to the Irish master.

The blueprint is surely at work in “Juno and the Paycock,” with its blustering schemer and his daft sidekick, parked at the kitchen table.

The humor is glorious. And then.

The comedy is the means for a deep illumination of human frailty and struggle, with abundant generosity given to a wide range of characters. Here the hijinks of Capt. Jack Boyle (Ciarán O’Reilly) and his pal Joxer (John Keating) propel the clichés of the stage Irishman and his blarney way over the top, all part of O’Casey’s deliberate route to a stark exposure of a society under siege.

Church and state, both sundered by the 1922 Irish civil war, offer diminishing hopes to these Dubliners, who parade through the worn Boyle flat as if it were a roadhouse on a byway to the Celtic twilight. There’s storytelling, poetry, drink and dance, with menace and dread lurking.

Designer Charlie Corcoran wisely draws on history, and fashions the shabby Boyle quarters out of a shell of grandeur. The high ceilings and tall windows speak of bygone refinement, before the Dublin aristocrats fled their townhouses, and the working poor crammed themselves in.

Matriarch Juno Boyle (Maryann Plunkett) centers this fraught crossroads, tending to the frailties and crises of her two grown children (Ed Malone and Sarah Street), as well as those of her childish husband, the “Paycock” himself, Capt. Jack. Plunkett, O’Reilly, Keating and Malone shine brightly here, along with Terry Donnelly as a saucy neighbor.

The play bears the true grit of struggle outside the door, while it also animates the changes of fate that batter these poor souls.

The lush writing transcends all the confines of plot, and the cast is uniformly well balanced for this house of cards.

We watch as hopes hover and then soar — only to crash down — and tragedy, no stranger to these districts, comes in to sweep dreams clean away.

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