The Irish Repertory Theatre has turned into a slum.
Or rather, Irish Rep has artfully transformed its mainstage auditorium into a semblance of the courtyard for some ratty Dublin tenements, circa 1920. Dingy red brick walls punctuated by grimy windows. Lines of grubby laundry hanging overhead.
Such atmospheric environs are designed to complement three masterworks by Sean O’Casey that the company will stage this spring, all of which transpire in the Dublin slums of a century or so ago: The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926).
After these productions that constitute O’Casey’s “Dublin Trilogy” successively open, they will be performed as a cycle through late May. In addition to the mainstage shows, Irish Rep is offering a dozen readings of various O’Casey plays (free to the public), symposiums, lectures, screenings, and other events regarding the great playwright and his times.
The company launched its retrospective on Tuesday with The Shadow of a Gunman, the drama that established O’Casey’s career as a playwright when it premiered at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.
Set in one of those decaying tenements, O’Casey’s seriocomic story is straightforward and unexpectedly droll. Donal Davoran (James Russell), a melancholy would-be poet, lately has been rooming with Seumas (Michael Mellamphy), a slovenly, loudmouthed peddler, in his seedy lodgings. It’s 1920 and the Irish War of Independence between English authorities and the Irish Republican Army is raging outside in the streets.
It becomes apparent that the other lodgers in the house mistakenly believe that Donal is an IRA gunman who is laying low from the law. Amused by their deference, Donal doesn’t correct the misunderstanding. “What danger can there be in being the shadow of a gunman?” he muses.
A cross-section of colorful Dubliners who wander in and out of Donal’s untidy room includes the irate landlord (Harry Smith), a chest-thumping patriot (Ed Malone), a hearty matron (Úna Clancy), an anxious gentleman who has seen better days (Robert Langdon Lloyd), plus a boozing blowhard (John Keating), and his long-suffering wife (Terry Donnelly). One of Seumas’ associates (Rory Duffy) makes a hurried appearance that proves crucial to the story.
More interesting than everyone else to Donal is Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy), a winsome little miss from upstairs who obviously takes a shine to him. Their little flirtation—interrupted by the others—is sweet in the passing moment, thanks to the delicate interplay between Russell and Hennessy as well as O’Casey’s beguiling text. Their interlude becomes terribly poignant in retrospect following the play’s dark conclusion. For what begins as, and for the most part remains, a comedy drawn from rich characters and ripe dialogue will eventually turn tragic.
For the most part, this fine, enduring play receives a winning and, above all, vital production by Ciarán O’Reilly, Irish Rep’s producing director, who cultivates a number of enjoyable performances. The pacing seems to lag in a few places: noticeably at the top of the first act and especially at the start of act two, which suggests that not all of the actors are entirely secure in their characterizations. It’s probable that those passages will tighten up during the run of the show. O’Reilly’s staging of the drama’s climax and conclusion, which are complex in action and emotion, is handled and performed extremely well.
The production is enhanced by a highly detailed setting designed by Charlie Corcoran, which proves that just because a room is messy and shabby doesn’t mean it cannot look beautiful, too. Michael Gottlieb’s lighting likewise appears lovely, especially in its moonlit moments. Designed by Linda Fisher and David Toser, the period clothes appear true to the times and the characters’ natures. The sound design, by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, effectively heightens the play’s changing moods.
The general excellence of Irish Rep’s production of The Shadow of a Gunman makes one look forward to seeing the next two shows in its O’Casey Cycle. Let’s mention, finally, that the playbill features several pages of historical context as well as a glossary that theatergoers likely will find to be helpful in appreciating these classic plays.
The Shadow of a Gunman opened February 12, 2019, at the Irish Repertory Theatre and runs through May 25. Tickets and information: irishrep.org