Nearly a century after its premiere at the Abbey Theatre, Seán O’Casey’s 1923 play The Shadow of a Gunman remains a bracingly forthright depiction of a revolution on the verge of devouring itself. Set in a Dublin tenement during the Irish War of Independence, its working class characters are a motley collection of the naive, the untrustworthy, and the vengeful, who can only comprehend their fraught times through an undermining mix of petty self-interests and knee-jerk romanticism. Even more troubling for the socialist O’Casey, the revolution, by and large, appeared to be something that was happening to this marginalized lot, not for them.
Needless to say, the play’s original Irish audiences, no doubt eager for the mythmaking tropes and clichés that typically accompany a long-anticipated and hard-fought uprising, were less than pleased with O’Casey’s mercilessly unsentimental take on their heroic struggle for freedom. But, as he would soon demonstrate, the contrarian playwright was not inclined to mend any bruised nationalistic feelings. Juno and the Paycock (1924), the next offering in his “Dublin Trilogy,” was an even bleaker tenement story set during the Irish Civil War, while The Plough and the Stars (1926) capped off O’Casey’s historical triptych with a critical retelling of the Easter Rebellion and audience riots.
With the soothing benefit of time and distance, the Irish Repertory Theatre has devoted its 30th season to productions of all three of these works, as well as an impressive array of other O’Casey events, including a free reading series of plays the author wrote between 1928 and his death in 1964, many of them underproduced gems that are definitely worth a listen. But kicking things off is The Shadow of a Gunman, which from the outset demonstrated O’Casey’s ability to effortlessly blend farce with despair; it also chronicled a new political and social Irish reality that, as an activist, O’Casey had not only helped to shape but, in many ways, come to regret.
What bothers O’Casey the most is violence, especially its veneration as a just means to a just end. In the play’s first act, he tackles this subject humorously through his protagonist Donal Davoren (James Russell), a proudly aloof poet who learns from his destitute roommate/illegal sublessor Seumas Shields (Michael Mellamphy), that the tenement’s other residents somehow have arrived at the shared and unwavering conclusion that he is an IRA gunman on the run from the British security forces. This fraudulent notoriety results in a parade of starry-eyed neighbors intruding on the poet’s much-cherished indifference to others.
It also lets the Irish Rep pack the play with exceptional actors, many of them familiar faces from the theatre’s past productions. As they delight in O’Casey’s vivid language, the actors also manage to add much-needed depth to the playwright’s occasionally two-dimensional characters, which given that O’Casey was still relatively new to his craft, is the primary challenge that must be overcome when staging The Shadow of a Gunman.
In addition to Russell’s dreamily detached Donal and Mellamphy’s charmingly oafish Seumas, O’Casey’s slum-dwellers include Mr. Gallogher (the captivating Robert Langdon Lloyd), a prodigiously spiteful epistolarian; his matronly champion Mrs. Henderson (Úna Clancy); Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy), a comely IRA admirer; Tommy Owens (the always hilarious Ed Malone), a bar-stool patriot; the haughtily sloshed Mr. Grigson (a stunningly good John Keating); his put-upon wife Mrs. Grigson (Terry Donnelly); the tenement’s cold-hearted landlord Mr. Mulligan (Harry Smith); and the shady Mr. Maguire (Rory Duffy) who precipitates the play’s tragic turn in the second act.
Of these characters the only one who doesn’t annoy Donal is, of course, Minnie, whose flirtatious attentions encourage him to embrace his unearned outlaw reputation. Enraptured by his budding love affair and own idealized verse, he can’t see the potential price to be paid for this deception, because, as an artist lost in his own imagination, he regards everything as make-believe. Even the escalating brutality outside his window isn’t real to him. Though, it soon will be.
Director Ciarán O’Reilly handles O’Casey’s abrupt tonal shifts well, transitioning from laughter to tears to horror with barely a hint of contrivance. A top-notch production team greatly aids O’Reilly’s quest for authenticity, turning the performance space into an impressive simulacrum of war-torn Dublin. Leading the effort is Charlie Corcoran whose incredibly detailed set spreads out into the audience, where a gloomy, ramshackle corridor deposits theatergoers into seats bracketed by crumbling brick walls and overhung with clotheslines burdened by the tenants’ latest washings.
Less conspicuous, though just as effective, is Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab’s evocative sound design, which, every now and then, invades Seumas and Donal’s cramped room with gunshots, explosions, and other telltale signs of the carnage in the streets. As for the rest of O’Reilly’s invaluable crew, Linda Fisher and David Toser’s costumes are threadbare perfection, while Michael Gottlieb’s lighting hauntingly underscores both the beauty of Donal’s poetic escapism and the danger of it.
The Shadow of the Gunman (extended through June 19, 2019)
Irish Repertory Theatre
The Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, 132 West 22nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-727-2737 or visit http://www.irishrep.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes including one intermission