David English, left, and Wil Hart rehearse their respective roles of Johnny Boyle and IRA Mobiliser in “Juno and the Paycock.”
By Peter McDermott
The St. Jean’s Players are, it seems, an adaptable and versatile bunch.
Take Jay Fink, for instance. Not long ago, he played the central character of Tevye in the iconic “Fiddler on the Roof”; now he is set, lighting and sound designer for Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock,” which will play for three performances this weekend at St. Jean’s Auditorium at 167 East 75 St. on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and three more next weekend.
“Jay was memorable in that,” said the production team’s Mark Rosenstein, “And he’s equally adept at using our limited resources in recreating a tenement in Dublin in the 1920s.
“We have to reinvent the wheel every time, because we don’t have storage space.” he added.
The mission of the St. Jean’s Players, said Rosenstein, is “to provide quality theater to the neighborhood at affordable prices.”
When it comes to casting, location helps greatly. “Being in New York, we have an embarrassment of riches,” he said. “Everybody flocks here.”
The producers narrowed down the applicants for the role of Mary Boyle to 15, for example. They called back five, before settling on Caitlin Boyle. “We’re very thrilled with her,” Rosenstein said.
“David English [Johnny Boyle] was so explosively perfect that we closed the book on the role as soon as we saw him,” he added.
They turned to Mark Singer, a veteran of St. Jean’s productions, for the role of “Captain” Jack Boyle. He previously played Atticus Finch in the adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the real-life Otto Frank in “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Generally, an amateur company like St. Jean’s can draw from a talented pool of ambitious young actors as well as a cadre of experienced older character actors. Finding a Juno, though, proved a “big challenge,” said Rosenstein, requiring as it did a middle-aged person with the skill and experience to do a complicated leading role.
Luckily, Katie Proulx joined the production three weeks ago. “She has shown an amazing gift to absorb all that dialogue in a short amount of time,” he said.
One of the cast of 13 provides a direct link to Ireland – Anthony O’Sullivan (who plays Jerry Devine) is from Buttevant, Co. Cork. As it happens, the father of director Patrick Mahoney, Pat Sr., is from Skibbereen, Co. Cork, while his mother Anne (Shea) Mahoney is from Waterville, Co. Kerry. “They live in Yonkers. They’re 56 years married,” said the third of their four sons.
The late John B. Keane, from Kerry, is a particular favorite of the director’s. “He’s brilliant,” said Mahoney, who has done productions of “Moll” and “Big Maggie.” Among Mahoney’s directorial credits, too, is a previous production of “Juno and the Paycock,” which was staged at the New York Irish Center.
“It’s a love song to O’Casey’s mother,” he said. “Juno is the most admirable person in the play. O’Casey himself called her the heroine.”
For Mahoney, O’Casey’s famed Dublin Trilogy in its entirety is “very moving,” but “Juno” takes place against the particularly tragic backdrop of the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, the struggle between Free Staters and Die-hards that comes to have a direct impact on the Boyle clan.
For a time, the popularity of O’Casey’s work with his fellow Dubliners kept the Abbey Theatre going. “His plays were the only ones that ran for longer than a week,” Mahoney said.
For many, including biographer Garry O’Connor, “Juno,” first staged in 1924 and adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock in 1930, was his finest.
“I’d never experienced ‘Juno’ until Patrick brought it to my attention,” Rosenstein said. “Now I’m immersed in the work. I’m half-way through his biography. He was quite a character.”
One of his tasks for this production was to write “‘Juno’: The Playgoer’s Guide,” which explains how Free Stater ending up fighting Die-hard.
In a program note also, Rosenstein says that the play for him “has served as a portal to the fierce honesty, humanism, conscience and commitment to social justice of one of the 20th century’s towering writers, Sean O’Casey.”
Performances of “Juno and the Paycock” are at St. Jean’s H.S. Auditorium, 167 East 75th St., (between Third and Lexington Aves.) on Fridays (May 8, 15) and Saturdays (May 9, 16) at 8 p.m. and Sundays (May 10, 17) at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20, with a special rate of $10 for seniors and students to age 18. Reservations: (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com. Remaining tickets at the door ½ hour before curtain.