The Shadow of a Gunman
by Sean O’Casey
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St.
How it’s New York: Irish Rep is one of New York’s theatre gems.
How it’s Irish: The play by Irish playwright Sean O’Casey is considered one of his best.
The year isn’t half over but I’ll join the throng of critics saying that “The Shadow of a Gunman” at Irish Repertory Theatre is one of the best things you’ll see in 2019.
Not just in New York, but anywhere.
O’Casey’s 1923 play starts out funny. You enjoy the poetry of the language and the precision of the performances by the actors, who are playing familiar Irish characters: a melancholy poet. An overeducated salesman. A verbose neighbor. A pompous drunk. Then the play takes a hard left turn and you’re in the world of tragedy. And you realize none of it was ever funny. The 10-person cast are perfect. Irish Rep Producing Director Ciarán O’Reilly hits each note so that the language is ever rhythmical and sharp.
“The Shadow of a Gunman” opens Irish Rep’s Sean O’Casey season, a retrospective of the playwright who is considered one of Ireland’s leading lights. He lived from 1880 to 1964, and helped shape, along with John Millington Synge and W.B. Yeats, what Irish theatre would be.
Yet you don’t get to see O’Casey’s work all that often. “The Shadow of a Gun Man” was the first collaboration between O’Reilly and Irish Rep Artistic Director Charlotte Moore in 1999, so this play also celebrates a 30-year celebration. 2019 also marks 100 years since the Irish War for Independence began. “The Shadow of a Gunman” takes place during that war.
Irish Rep is presenting O’Casey’s famous Dublin trilogy, “The Shadow of a Gunman”( 1923), “Juno and the Paycock (1924), and “The Plough and the Stars” (1926) in repertory. A lot of theatres call themselves “Repertory Theatre” without being that at all. What it should mean is that shows are produced and then exist in a company’s repertoire, and are shown at intervals. European theatres often work like this, as do summer Shakespeare companies in the U.S., which typically open one show and then another until at some point in the season all run “in rep.”
But it’s rare for American theatres to work like this in a general way. It’s a pity because, for actors, performing a work at intervals for months deepens it. For the audience, seeing the same actors in different roles, sometimes related roles, enlightens an audience about that work as well.
But this is what Irish Rep is doing. In addition, they’re offering free readings of O’Casey’s plays in The Sean O’Casey Reading Series, symposia, lectures, film screenings and more.
But this would not be of more than historical interest if the end result — the production — did not succeed.
So it’s with joy and wonder that I’m able to report that Irish Rep has done it again. Ciarán O’Reilly’s production of “The Shadow of a Gunman” has heart, pathos, humor and wit. It also has grief, one that will be sure to stay with you awhile.
The first thing you notice as you enter Irish Rep is the magnificent immersive set by Charlie Corcoran. Irish Rep’s space has been reimagined as a Dublin slum, with brick walls and laundry hanging above our head. And the laundry looks threadbare. Before the play begins, we hear birds and street sounds (sound design by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab; Rumery also wrote original music).
Then you become aware of pounding: pounding on the door as women cry “Mr. Shields!” A man sleeps in the bed in the tenement we see onstage. Another man, tall and skinny, taps away at a typewriter.
Shields (Michael Mellemphy) is the holder of the flat; the typing poet is Donal Davoren (James Russell). Shields, we’ll learn, is a lazy salesman (he lies in bed until the day is half gone) and former teacher. Every other sentence out of his mouth laments Ireland, sometimes as flowery as any poet. We see Shields sass the landlord, and pretend that his partner, Maguire (Rory Duffy) kept him waiting when he himself was late. Maguire, we learn, can’t go around with him to sell hairpins and such that day anyway; he has an appointment in the country. He leaves his suitcase of stuff at Shields’ flat.
Before going out for the day, Shields lets Davoren know that people in the tenement believe he’s a gunman on the lam. It’s 1920, and we’re in the middle of the Irish War for Independence (the playbill is filled with helpful notes about the play, and O’Casey, and includes a glossary of Irish terms as well).
Davoren is amazed. A melancholy chap fond of quoting Shelley, he’d probably put everyone straight, if the first person to
come in and admire him due to the misapprehension weren’t pretty Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy). A fierce young thing, she’s a True Believer.
“It’s time to give up waiting and take to the gun!” she exclaims. Her passion bowls Davoren over.
Before he can misabuse her of her mistake, in come a few other people eager to know him: “I’m saying nothing” Tommy Owens (Ed Malone), then a pitiful neighbor from another flat, Mr. Gallagher (Robert Langdon Llyod), who has an erudite letter he wants Davoren to give to his I.R.A. buddies.
What’s in the letter?
A complaint about his neighbors. One can see why Shields laments for Ireland, when “independence” seems to mean “sic ’em.”
Elderly Mrs. Henderson (Una Clancy) helps Gallagher out. Everyone wants Davoren to be a gunman.
Davoren then is stuck. He half-heartedly tries to clear the record, but he’s getting a lot of benefits out of being a gunman on the lam. Why not be the shadow of a gunman? he asks himself.
If admiration based on the ideal of a hardened killer sounds familiar. Young Christy Mahon in John Millington Synge’s 1907 comedy “The Playboy of the Western World” sees his stock rise when everyone at the Mayo shebeen thinks he’s killed his own Da.
The characters are comical, the situation is rather fun. We hear about curfews and such, but we don’t see them, and it all seems rather harmless, like a John Ford film.
Then Act Two happens.
That suitcase that was left?
Because it was full of bombs.
That letter Davoren accepts?
That matters too. Davoren frantically searches for it to burn it, when the Auxies (Police Auxiliaries) arrive to raid the tenement. They are raiding it because it turns out Maguire actually is what Davoren merely poses as: a member of the I.R.A., who had conducted an ambush.
And they’ve heard of Davoren because Tommy Owens shoots his mouth off in a pub. (Hmm. Where have we heard that before. Cough Papadopolous Cough).
Suddenly the I.R.A. is no joke at all. Suddenly the war has come home. And it’s truehearted Minnie Powell most in peril, as she takes the suitcase, saying nothing would happen to a girl. (Spoiler: she’s wrong about that.) Mrs. Grigson (Terry Donnelly) frets about her absent husband and wonders whether insurance will pay if he’s shot. When he finally arrives, he’s quick to be interrogated.
But after it’s all over, he’s quick to boast about his behavior. Irish Rep regular John Keating beautifully shows the shame underneath this drunk’s bravado. And Harry Smith morphs amazingly from a much put-upon landlord to a brutal British Auxie.
It’s in Act Two that O’Casey shows us Ireland as he knows it, and he pulls no punches. Shields is a coward whose fervent prayers are only for himself. He and the Grigsons will inflate their courage when they feel safe. And Davoren will forever blame himself as the biggest coward of all. Unlike Shields, he was aware of his cowardice: he didn’t approve of letting Minnie take the risk.
Yet he let her do it.
Every single role has style and something extra. Mellemphy’s slovenly shields has a light step and wonderful physicality. He can recognize a Shakespeare quote to the act and scene — yet he’s revealed to be a parasite, not paying bills and only praying for himself.
Hennessy’s Minnie charms and surprises, too.
When Shields dismisses her to Davoren, he replies that she’s pretty and good and brave too: he’s right.
At first Davoren tries a little thinking-man’s reason with her: he argues that no man prefers to die for a cause and that even Robert Emmett “would have lived on if he could.” That’s funny— but we’ll see that Davoren comes to regret that. And we may regret our laugh. He watches in disgust as Shields mutters “did she say anything, will she say anything.” All elbows and angles, Davoren’s watching poet feels the doom the most. He knows his own shortcomings and he knows that his poetry can’t stop a gun.
Kudos to O’Reilly for the way he paces the comic bits. The interlude with Gallagher (Lloyd’s long-suffering dignity amuses) and elderly Mrs. Henderson and the letter could so easily be tedious, but we never forget, thanks to O’Reilly, that Davoren constantly wants to impress Minnie. The tension under even Tommy Owens’ ridiculous salutes hangs thickly.
Remery and Staab’s sound design, including bombs drawing nearer, brings that tension home.
By letting the audience relax and feel at home with a familiar premise, O’Casey implicates us into this Ireland’s lack of moral fiber. But he’s not only blaming the Irish, by any means: it’s clear they are outmaneuvered and out-armed by the Auxies and the Brits. You can’t watch without knowing it’s all doomed.
But worth it?
That’s the question. O’Casey does not answer directly. But with the love he shows to the characters, it can be inferred.
O’Casey Season partners include Shivaun O’Casey (daughter to Sean O’Casey), Neil Pepe (Artistic Director, Atlantic Theater Company), the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dr. Maureen Murphy (HOFSTRA University), Robert Lowery (Sean O’Casey Review), and more.