Sean O’Casey is back and still packing a punch after almost 100 years.
The revival of The Shadow of a Gunman, directed by Ciaran O’Reilly, now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, was the first of O’Casey’s plays produced and the beginning of his Dublin triptych. Dublin’s Abbey Theatre sold out for the premiere of the play in 1923, the first time in the theatre’s history. This is a period piece wonderfully revived, not reimagined, that has relevance today as theater and as human drama.
The play takes place in 1920 during the Irish War of Independence, the sounds of which are heard, pre-curtain, tumbling through the streets outside with an occasional bird song and horse neighing. The intricately detailed set is a down and out, and heading further down and out, tenement rooming house that reaches out into the audience with crumbling brick walls, abutted buildings and dingy clothes drying on lines.
The main set is a single dark front room of the house, shared lodgings by Donal Davoran (James Russell), a brooding complaining poet, and a more mouth than backbone peddler Seumas Shields (Michael Mellamphy).
Donal is relatively new to the house and Seumas has let the rumor persist that Donal is an IRA gunman on the run and laying low. Donal lets that rumor stand as he sees the effect it has on the pretty red-head Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy) from upstairs (“Maybe I am, maybe I’m not”). The gunman stature adds some luster to his persona that is not normally there, and the attention of Minnie brings him out of his morose poetic melancholy. His line to himself closing Act I, “What danger could there be in being the shadow of a gunman?” foreshadows the tragic ending of the play.
The whole houseful of comic characters that come banging and tramping into the room throughout the course of the play make this soup a complete meal. The must pay the rent landlord (Harry Smith), the wonderfully arrogant Tommy Owens (Ed Malone), the can’t get a word in edge-wise matron of the house (Una Clancy), the long-winded letter writer (Robert Langdon Lloyd), the put-upon wife (Terry Donnelly, who does a great job of describing off stage action) and the comic timings of John Keating as Mr. Grisgson, add a palate of multi-colored layers to the evening.
The Irish Repertory Theatre is mounting all three of O’Casey’s Dublin plays, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926), throughout the spring, and once all opened will run them in rep through May 25. Besides the mainstage shows, there will be readings of all of O’Casey’s plays (free admission), symposiums, lectures, screenings and other events highlighting and focusing on his body of work.
When you go, be sure to take a look at the historical context and glossary in the playbill to give further context to the play.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the Dublin plays. They are a true gift the Irish Rep is giving to us all. As a theatre lover, I urge you to partake of their excellent work and offerings.
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)
"The Shadow of a Gunman, Sean O’Casey’s tragicomic 1923 play about gun violence, patriotism and empty rhetoric, has returned to the Irish Repertory Theater, the first production in a season devoted to his work. And like most Irish Rep shows, there’s little interest in reinterrogating the play: This is a revival, not a reinvention."
Alexis Soloski for New York Times
"Kicking off a four-month Sean O'Casey season, the Irish Rep treats this relatively minor work like royalty. Charlie Corcoran's impressive set wraps around the entirety of the Rep's mainstage, with laundry hanging from the balcony and a row-house facade built into the wall of the orchestra. There are two sound designers (Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab), two costume designers (Linda Fisher and David Toser), and a level of precision that only comes from deep perception and care. That's one of the lessons of the play, as it turns out. Donal, his mind on poetry, doesn't recognize the qualities of his neighbors because he barely glances up from his typewriter: He puts them in danger out of sheer inattention. This production could never be accused of that. It chooses to look carefully and closely—and noticing, the play argues, is itself a moral act."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York