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Love in the Time of Cowardice: O'Casey's Shadow of a Gunman Blazes at Irish Rep

The 1923 play is the first of three major Sean O'Casey works featured in the theater's season.

Meg Hennessy plays Minnie Powell, and James Russell plays Donal Davoren in Sean O'Casey's 1923 play The Shadow of a Gunman, directed by Ciarán O'Reilly, at Irish Repertory Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

The Irish War of Independence began 100 years ago last month, a fitting anniversary for Irish Repertory Theatre to stage The Shadow of a Gunman, the first major work of the company's Sean O'Casey season (Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars will follow). The cycle is off to a strong start with this thrilling new production, superbly performed by a 10-member cast and featuring an ambitious, impressively detailed set by Charlie Corcoran that spills from the stage into the theater itself. Under the confident direction of Ciarán O'Reilly, this faithful staging of O'Casey's first masterpiece is as excellent a production of the play as you're ever likely to see.

The play takes place in a Dublin tenement room in 1920, with the conflict between the British government and the Irish Republican Army well underway. Police Auxiliaries and so-called Black and Tans (often unruly and untrained British reinforcements for local police) raid homes and quash rebellions wherever they're found. Poet Donal Davoren (Irish Rep regular James Russell gushing Young Werther romanticism) writes sorrowful verse in the squalid tenement room of the peddler Seumas Shields (Michael Mellamphy in a comically blustering performance; Linda Fisher and David Toser's threadbare costumes for Seumas add to the humor). Donal's unexplained presence in the tenement has given rise to (false) rumors among the tenement denizens that he is an IRA operative — a gunman on the run.

Úna Clancy as Mrs. Henderson, Robert Langdon Lloyd as Mr. Gallagher, Ed Malone as Tommy Owens, James Russell as Donal Davoren, and Meg Hennessy as Minnie Powell in The Shadow of a Gunman.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Donal is in no hurry to disabuse them of the idea, especially when he learns that his status as a rebel makes him even more attractive to upstairs resident Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy plays the courageous but ingenuous nationalist). Donal, however, is no freedom fighter; he disdains war, politics, and sentimental ideas of patriotism. "No man, Minnie, willingly dies for anything," he says. That statement is put to the test when the tenement is raided by a group of Black and Tans, and a suspicious bag left in the room by Seumas's associate Mr. Maguire (Rory Duffy as a deceptively cheerful IRA soldier) threatens to implicate Donal and Seumas in the rebellion — and possibly get them shot. Suddenly, Donal must choose between acting honorably to save another by putting his own life on the line, and taking the coward's way out.

The Shadow of a Gunman was O'Casey's first produced play, and his inexperience as a playwright (he was 43 when Dublin's Abbey Theatre initially staged it) shows at times. The comedic scenes of Act 1 often rely on stock characters such as the swaggering Tommy Owens (a hilarious Ed Malone), the malaprop-spouting Mrs. Henderson (an imperious Úna Clancy), and the elderly Mr. Gallagher (an easily befuddled Robert Langdon Lloyd). On the page, these characters come off as Shakespearean clichés, but the actors make these familiar types engaging enough to get us through some drawn-out speeches.

James Russell and Michael Mellamphy play roommates Donal and Seumas in Irish Rep's production of The Shadow of a Gunman.
(© Carol Rosegg)

That quibble aside, The Shadow of a Gunman showcases O'Casey's unquestionable talent for blending the comic with the tragic. O'Reilly makes the transition from one to the other as natural as day to dusk, gradually shifting the bright humor of the first act into the deadly violence of the second. Michael Gottlieb's naturalistic lighting design (look for the shards of moonlight on Donal's face as he gazes out the window) fills the tenement room with nighttime shadows that become imbued with ominous sounds of police cars and bomb explosions drawing ever closer. Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab's jarring sound design turns the scene into a terrifying theater of war. More than once I jumped in my seat.

The realism of the production is one of its strongest suits. Corcoran's set is masterful in its attention to the minutiae of a 1920 Irish tenement, with its bomb-scarred bricks, bedraggled curtains, a depressingly uncomfortable-looking bed, and a chipped image of the Virgin Mary that looks as forlorn and hopeless as the tenants she watches over. In the middle of this dismal room is a table with Donal's typewriter, a stack of books, and a handful of flowers — a tiny oasis in a city paved with fear. "There is an ugliness that can be made beautiful," says Donal to himself. In his critical depiction of that tragic war, O'Casey did just that.