BWW Review: Irish Rep's Richly-Flavored Mounting of Sean O'Casey's THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN
If a contemporary Hollywood screenwriter pitched the plot of Sean O'Casey's classic 1923 drama, The Shadow of a Gunman to a movie producer ("A struggling poet gets in over his head when he allows his neighbors to believe he's an IRA gunman in order to impress an attractive young woman.") it might get sold as a wacky romantic comedy.
And while there certainly are a good deal of laughs to be had from the playwright's first piece performed at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, it is ultimately a tragic melodrama that paints an affectionate portrait of Ireland's everyday residents trying to live their lives as the Irish War of Independence takes over the streets and enters into their homes.
Taking place in a single room of a Dublin tenement slum, producing director Ciarán O'Reilly's richly-flavored Irish Rep production is graced by a superbly detailed set by Charlie Corcoran, which stretches out into the audience, evoking an extended neighborhood feel in a play where some key events occur offstage.
Young Donal Davoren (acerbically-humored James Russell) attempts to find some kind of beauty that can be typed onto paper in his wretched surroundings, longing to capture the romanticism of his literary hero, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
He rents a bed from the apartment's tenant, pedlar Seumas Shields (humorously boisterous Michael Mellamphy), whose traveling schedule leaves the poet with plenty of alone time. Though neither regards himself as politically-minded, Seumas begrudgingly supports the Republican cause, though he wishes his countrymen would stop putting others in danger by provoking the British soldiers nicknamed Black and Tans.
Being a newcomer, gossip has spread about Donal, and the story that has stuck, which he only becomes aware of as the tale progresses, is that he's a hero gunman on the run fighting for Irish freedom.
Most of the play involves a series of visits that keep interrupting Donal from his creative endeavors. There's landlord Mr. Mulligan (Harry Smith) demanding back rent, Seumas' associate Mr. Maguire (Rory Duffy) talking business and neighbor Mrs. Grigson (Terry Donnelly), concerned for the safety of her drunken braggart husband Adolphus (John Keating).
The only welcome arrival is that of the pretty upstairs neighbor Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessey), an outspoken supporter of Irish Independence who eventually turns out to be the play's bravest and most selfless advocate for the cause. It's through her that Donal learns of the rumor about him but given the star-struck admiration she expresses (and perhaps the fact that, due to the imposed 8pm curfew, she is his only opportunity for feminine evening company) he doesn't reveal the truth.
And though he can now be somewhat amused when naïve young neighbor Tommy Owens (Ed Malone) pledges to be willing to serve whenever the cause may need him, the seriousness of his situation becomes more evident when a neighbor from another building, the gregarious Mrs. Henderson (Una Clancy), arrives with timid Mr. Gallagher (Robert Langdon Lloyd) who has written a letter to the IRA asking for help silencing his noisy neighbors. They just assume the poet can deliver it to the right person.
Naturally, circumstances place Donal and Seumas in danger, and the play's conclusion clearly separates the heroes from the cowardly fools while coldly dispelling any poetically romanticized view of warfare.