If seeing the sensational premiere Broadway production of The Ferryman (or hearing about it) has piqued your interest in Irish history, make it a point to head downtown, where you can catch an older classic, one focused on the troubles before The Troubles.
Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of the Gunman—part of the celebrated playwright’s “Dublin Trilogy,” being performed in its entirety to commemorate the Irish Repertory Theatre’s 30th anniversary season—unfolds in 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, which was itself preceded by centuries of conflict fed by the usual culprits: religion, nationalism, imperialist greed. The setting is the slums of Dublin, where O’Casey was raised and where he acquired the passionate yearning for social justice that nourished his work. But as this bracing and ultimately haunting production reminds us—under the witty, vigorous direction of Irish Rep co-founder and producing director Ciarán O’Reilly—the playwright also had a keen eye for human frailties and foibles that can’t be written off as products of oppression, at least not entirely.
Gunman takes place inside a tenement house, in a cramped, shoddy room that evokes the squalor enveloping the community. (Scenic designer Charlie Corcoran establishes this vibe in the halls leading to the stage area, where audience members are greeted with imitation brick and hanging laundry items.) The dubious living quarters are presently shared by Seumas Shields, a peddler, and Donal Davoren, a poet, neither of whom have had much luck with their trades.
In Seumas’s case, this lack of progress can be credited at least in part to sloth, and a sort of convenient ambivalence that extends to his political views, which find him alternately praising the Republican cause and scorning the men who risk their lives—and put those of others in peril—to stand up to the British. Michael Mellamphy is splendid in the role, mining the humor and pathos in Seumas’s fundamental cowardice, which is laid bare in the play’s devastating final portion.
James Russell is equally compelling as Donal, who also suffers from a certain lack of moral commitment, though his is by the end tempered by a piercing self-awareness. Lanky and sweetly handsome, Russell looks the part of the pining young artist, and is wonderfully funny in his character’s more indulgently wistful moments, such as when Donal paces the room late at night, quoting poetry and waxing grandiose: “Ah, Shelley, Shelley, you yourself were a lovely human orb shining through clouds of whirling human dust.”
But Donal’s romanticism also informs his disastrous error of playing along when others in the house mistake him for a gunman (hence the title) serving the Irish Republican Army. It’s this apparently whimsical decision not to contest his mistaken identity, coupled with Seumas’s carelessness, that seal the doom of another occupant, whose simple courage and pure-heartedness pose a sharp contrast to the bluster and bombast of the central roommates—and make plain the terrible wages of violence, even in the service of a seemingly just cause.
O’Reilly has filled his cast with other fine players who drive home Gunman‘s harrowing elements while fulfilling its rich comic potential. John Keating is a standout at the latter, playing the inveterate alcoholic Mr. Grigson, whose fumbling and fulminating after returning late one night actually becomes the tonic before Gunman‘s final storm. Terry Donnelly is by turns droll and poignant as his put-upon wife, while Meg Hennessy brings both girlish charm and subtle steel to the role of Minnie Powell, a younger, single woman whose attraction to Donal is relayed with a lovely, tender playfulness.
Sound designers Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab also deserve kudos, for punctuating the dialogue (and at times stopping it cold) with vivid evidence of the unrest and terror outside the house. Given the troubled, polarized state of our own nation at this time, The Shadow of a Gunman provides a powerful reminder of all we still have to be grateful for—and how fragile that relative peace is.
The Shadow of a Gunman opened February 12, 2019, at the Irish Repertory Theatre and runs through May 25. Tickets and information: irishrep.org