On Aug. 14, 1924, after a third night of sold-out houses at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, inveterate Irish playgoer Joseph Holloway noted in his diary: “The Shadow of a Gunman [has] been staged for three nights with the usual result—that crowds had to be turned away each performance. . . . Certainly [Sean O’Casey] has written the two most popular plays ever seen at the Abbey, and they both are backgrounded by the terrible times we have just passed through, but his characters are so true to life and humorous that all swallow the bitter pill of fact that underlies both pieces.”
The second play Holloway refers to was Juno and the Paycock; that and The Plough and the Stars are part of the Irish Rep’s O’Casey Season. If the last two are better-known, it’s because Gunman was the first of O’Casey’s plays ever produced. It is more episodic than the others, and sometimes a bit derivative—it needs a sterling production like Ciarán O’Reilly’s current one to underline its virtues.
The hero, Donal Davoren (James Russell), is an impoverished poet, scribbling in a bedsitter he shares with Seumas Shields, a blustering, irascible notions salesman, beautifully played by Michael Mellamphy. The events of this particular day, from morning to late night, will see Donal endure a series of often comical interruptions and end up cowering and guilt-ridden.
It’s 1920; in the streets there are pitched battles between the Irish Republican Army and British forces. Donal’s neighbors have the idea that he is an IRA killer in hiding. The element of mistaken identity echoes John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, wherein the shiftless Christy Mahon is believed to have murdered his father and is exalted for it. Christy plays along with the false impression for all it’s worth, but Donal is more flustered by the error. He is, by comparison, more manipulated and less clever than Synge’s hero, but Russell invests him with decency and anguish enough to make him sympathetic.
The string of intruders starts with the landlord, Mr. Mulligan (Harry Smith), who forces his way in to collect rent and has words with Seumas. Mulligan is followed by Meg Hennessy’s fetching Minnie Powell, who boldly flirts with Donal. Next is a gangly, talkative IRA sympathizer, Tommy Owens, played with comically ignorant bravado by Ed Malone. (One of the few dubious moments occurs when Tommy makes a movement of zipping his mouth to indicate he’ll keep quiet about Donal’s identity: the modern zipper was only invented in 1913 and in 1920 was probably not in general use, let alone mimed for effect.)
Shortly after, the forceful Mrs. Henderson (Una Clancy) arrives with another tenement resident, the flustered Mr. Gallagher (Robert Langdon Lloyd), who seeks redress for insults from some of the occupants. Gallagher has written a letter of complaint, and Lloyd makes a feast of reading it with a quasi-dithering air, clearly exasperating poor Donal, who is a captive audience and must play along with the idea that he is a fierce IRA man—the truth is, he is only a shadow of a gunman.
The colorful Irish characters and their domestic squabbles are only part of O’Casey’s equation: Michael Gottlieb provides the lights and Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab the sounds of pitched battles. That morning a man named Maguire has left Shields a gladstone bag and then been shot dead by soldiers, but O’Casey maintains suspense about the bag’s contents.
O’Reilly’s production benefits not just from excellent performers, but from the work of set designer Charlie Corcoran, who has done over the theater’s interior with astonishing results. Broken brick walls are everywhere; washing hangs over the audience and high above the stage; a fanlight window sits over a door at the right side of the house (where there is no entry or exit) and lights in a window on the same wall shine through a lace curtain. It’s almost immersive. The sense of grinding poverty, a lack of privacy, and constant danger that weighs on the characters is everywhere.
O’Casey doesn’t shy away from criticizing religion either. “Thanks be to God that I’m a daily communicant,” says Seumas. “There’s a great comfort in religion. It makes a man strong in time of trouble an’ brave in time of danger.” “You’re welcome to your angels,” Donal responds. “Philosophy is mine; philosophy that makes the coward brave; the sufferer defiant; the weak strong…” But when lives are in peril, neither religion nor philosophy comes to their aid. O’Casey, like Synge, views the Irish character with a jaundiced eye and a comic sensibility. The Shadow of a Gunman is a fine first course for the heftier meals to come.
The Irish Repertory Theatre’s Sean O’Casey Season continues through May 25. The Shadow of a Gunman will be joined on March 9 by Juno and the Paycock, and on April 20 by The Plough and the Stars; they will play in repertory. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, information and schedules of the shows and other O’Casey-related events, call (212) 727-2737 or visit irishrep.org.