So, Joe Dowling goes out as he came in.

In theater lore, Dowling's 1988 staging of "Juno and the Paycock" so enraptured Broadway that it established his good reputation in the United States.

On Friday, Dowling opened his final production as director of the Guthrie Theater, with Sean O'Casey's 1924 classic set during the Irish Civil War.

Dowling's soul demanded he stage this play. He grew up poor in Dublin and hears the song in O'Casey words — the broad rhythms of laughter, tragedy, determination, futility and too much life. Also, "Juno" has been staged only once at the Guthrie, in 1973 by Tomás MacAnna, Dowling's mentor at the Abbey Theatre.

Juno is the mother and Jack Boyle the father of Ireland in the seminal years following independence and wrenching civil war. He is a feckless drunk who sloughs off job offers. She holds together a house that includes a son staring down a dead comrade and a daughter — a symbol of hope whose best attempts to deliver this family will only find dishonor.

Dowling always has worn his heart on his sleeve as a director, asking for characters who shove aside realism and find larger, memorable performances. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. We should not be surprised after 20 years to see this style in "Juno."

"Captain" Jack (Stephen Brennan) is known as the "Paycock," strutting his outsized personality among the lovable souses and grieving neighbors in their disheveled apartment building. Brennan indulges the man's eccentricities — Jack's sense of confidence in accomplishing nothing, his charm in serenading a party, his bad fakery of leg pains whenever employment is mentioned.

Anita Reeves' Juno is a bulwark who in her darkest moments still pushes on. She's a realist, aware of the wreckage in her own house, and of the violence in the streets. "Ah, what can God do against the stupidity of men," she spits out.

Chief among her targets is Joxer Daly, the parasite stealing Ireland's pocketbook and heart. Joxer (Mark Benninghofen) cozies up to the willing Jack Boyle with the promise of a drink (if Jack is buying), and then robs him like a thief.

Benninghofen is like a ballet dancer in a highly mannered performance — graceful even in drunk stumbling, constantly working his hands and fingers, hunched in stature. He expresses Joxer's spirit best in a lunatic grin full of blackened teeth.

As son Johnny Boyle, David Darrow twists his face into the visage of a ghoul fearful of God and fate. Darrow uses the tools of caricature to craft something real and human. Katie Kleiger is fetching as the lovely daughter Mary (the Marilyn Munster of this family).

Dowling leaves the Guthrie with three of his best productions. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" he did for Shakespeare; "The Crucible" he did for Arthur Miller. And "Juno"? He did this for Joe Dowling.

It is a dramatic gesture by a director always defined by his drama, on and off stage throughout his 20 years here.

He came to the stage Friday night and after hugging his actors told the audience he hadn't planned on saying anything. Really? Wasn't going to say anything? This is a man who never misses a moment.

With great emotion in his voice and face, Dowling thanked the crowd. He closed simply: "Thank you for 20 years."

He exited, stage left.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299