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Theatre in Review: The Shadow of a Gunman (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Terry Donnelly. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The Shadow of a Gunman bills itself as a tragedy, and while it does arrive, eventually, at that designation -- in a second act that is savage in its violence and candid about the cowardice of its leading characters -- it takes nearly half the play to get there. Before the intermission, Sean O'Casey's play is devoted to introducing the inhabitants of a seedy Dublin tenement circa 1920, a determinedly colorful lot who come and go, making as much noise as possible, the better to disturb the peace of Donal Davoren, a struggling poet. Donal, who composes Yeatsian odes to the moon, tries to style himself as the brooding, romantic sort, detached from the concerns of everyday life, but he gets no assistance from his fellow residents, who are an intrusive, declamatory lot, most of whom are convinced, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that Donal is an IRA gunman on the run from the British army. (It is the middle of the Irish War for Independence, the British have occupied the country, and gunfire can be heard in the streets.)

The play begins with intruders knocking on the door and window, and the din rarely settles down thereafter. They're not an especially appealing lot, at least in CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly's overhearty production; they keep banging through the doorway, bursting with energy and oratory, seemingly ready to take part in a farce that the playwright hasn't written. In residence with Donal is Seumas Shields, a lazy, garrulous peddler who drives his roommate mad with his incessant chatter about, among other things, the quality of the braces he sells. Among those dropping by -- either wanting something or merely to sound off -- are Mr. Mulligan, the landlord, demanding his rent; Mrs. Henderson, a motherly sort, expert at bossing others around; Mr. Gallagher, a doddering old duffer who has a letter of complaint addressed to the Irish Republican Army; and young Tommy Owens, addled by too many pints, who keeps signaling, in the most lumbering fashion, that he and Donal are "two firm hands clasped together will all the power outbrave of the heartless English tyrant, the Saxon coward an' knave." Rather more welcome, at least to Donal, is Minnie Powell, the flirtatious young thing who lives upstairs. And there's Mr. Maguire, a colleague of Seumas, who rather mysteriously leaves behind a bag filled with unknown contents -- en route to an appointment that ends in his killing by the British militia known as the Black and Tans.

O'Casey fills the stage with humorous types in order to set us up for a wrenching shift of tone in Act II, but, at least at the Irish Rep, this crew is notable more for their decibel level than any amusement value. On the plus side, James Russell effectively makes Donal the compellingly still center of this churning universe, and he has some charming moments with Meg Hennessy, who is winsome, but never cloying, as Minnie. There's a faintly melancholy tinge to their flirtation, a very real attraction undercut by Donal's willingness to go along with the gunman lie, which impresses her, as well as by his awareness that Minnie is little more than a frivolous young thing -- or so he thinks.

Indeed, that self-serving notion is brutally overturned in Act II, which is filled with the terrors of the night. It is after one in the morning, and Donal is still at work, still fending off Seumas, who, unable to sleep, continues to fill the air with his random thoughts. Also coming and going are the bibulous Mr. Grigson and his long-suffering wife. Then gunfire is heard, followed by explosions; in a panic, everyone realizes that the Black and Tans are coming. Mr. Gallagher's letter, still on the premises, suddenly looks like incriminating evidence. Even worse are the contents of Mr. Maguire's bag. Donal and Seumas are paralyzed until Minnie, perhaps because she believes Donal is a rebel, makes a rash decision that will have stunning consequences.

If the first act of The Shadow of a Gunman comes off as a rather too-zesty serving of local color, the second act is an immersion in a terror that seems all too familiar today. O'Reilly's staging acquires a muscularity it lacked, sweeping up the characters into a life-or-death situation that feels frighteningly immediate. The production design is exceptionally helpful in this regard. Charlie Corcoran's vividly realized set extends the grimy, ill-heated building into the auditorium, with lines of dingy laundry above the audience. Michael Gottlieb's superb lighting shows the scenery to its best advantage, shifting subtly as needed and providing strikingly different time-of-day looks. (You can feel the chill of the moonlight coming in the window.) The sound design, by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, brings the life of the streets onstage, and when the action turns violent, we feel plunged into the middle of a military action. The costumes, by Linda Fisher and David Toser, are appropriately shabby and filled with period detail.

In addition to Russell and Hennessy, there are solid turns from Michael Mellamphy as the scattered, motormouthed Seumas; John Keating as the bleary Mr. Grigson; and Terry Donnelly, offering a welcome touch of underplaying as the martyr-like Mrs. Grigson.

The Shadow of a Gunman was O'Casey's first produced work, and there's little point in expecting a masterpiece -- but it does show how the playwright, still young and lacking in experience, was able to effectively distill the life of his time into a drama that, when it finally comes to life, is a shattering historical document. This is the first of three O'Casey works the company is presenting this season. It is good enough to make one expectant for what is to come. -- David Barbour

(25 February 2019)

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