“The Plough and the Stars” is not for everyone. The play — currently at the Kasser Theater at Montclair University as part of the Peak Performances series — is a harrowing account of the chaos that Dublin’s Easter Rising insurrection of 1916 wreaked upon city inhabitants. Several characters end up covered in blood; the sounds of guns and bombs are so loud they will make you flinch. There’s some humor in it, but it’s not exactly a feel-good night at the theater.
The play, written by Seán O’Casey, has been brought to Montclair by Ireland’s national theater, the Abbey Theatre. Not surprisingly, the actors’ thick accents make it hard to decipher many of the lines, so it’s challenging (for those not used to the accent, at least) on that level, as well.
But this play is intended to deliver a jolt. And this production does.
“The Plough and the Stars,” which takes its name from the design of the flag used by the Irish Citizen Army, was first produced, in 1926, at the Abbey Theatre. And it resulted, then, in a protest (that turned violent), inspired by a belief that the play was not sufficiently respectful toward the cause of Irish nationalism.
But the subject of the play isn’t really the cause: It’s the effect the cause had on the ordinary city dwellers caught up in the fight. Maybe that was hard to see then, when the Easter Rising was still so fresh in people’s minds. But it’s obvious now.
The first act takes place in the tenement flat of a young couple, Jack and Nora Clitheroe (played by Ian-Lloyd Anderson and Kate Stanley Brennan), where we meet their boarders and some of their eccentric neighbors as well. The second scene moves to a tavern, with a prostitute, Rosie Redmond (Nyree Yergainharsian), playing a prominent role.
Since the first two acts are so dependent on dialogue — basically you have a lot of characters hanging around, bantering — the difficulty that most modern Americans will have in making out the words is particularly frustrating. But things pick up, after the intermission, in acts three and four, which throw the characters into the middle of the Easter Rising, with opportunities for both comedy (with some of the characters taking part in some frenzied looting) and tragedy (with Jack, an officer of the Irish Citizen Army, going off to fight, and Nora staying behind, and suffering, and eventually going mad).
The set design, by Jon Bausor, is intentionally stark and minimalistic. There are some modern touches, with dark, moody rock ‘n’ roll setting the tone, and characters watching television (and using remote controls) and wearing modern clothes. Occasionally a character will pick up a microphone and croon, as if the stage were a cabaret or a lounge.
In an ingenious piece of staging, the tall scaffold tower that represents the tenement’s stairway — the thing connecting the characters to each other — falls onto its side, and turns into something else.
The play as a whole is an exercise in transformation, too, with its early aimlessness ultimately turning into something profound, tragic and unforgettable.
“The Plough and the Stars” will be presented at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University Oct. 22 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 23 at 3 p.m., as part of the Peak Performances series. Visit peakperfs.org.