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The Shadow of a Gunman

Theatre Review by David Hurst - February 12, 2019

Meg Hennessy and James Russell
Photo by Carol Rosegg

As the cornerstone of their 30th Anniversary season, the Irish Repertory Theatre is presenting a comprehensive retrospective of the work of the great Irish playwright, Sean O'Casey. The centerpiece of the season is the presentation of The O'Casey Cycle, his renowned Dublin Trilogy, in repertory: The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926). Additionally, there will be readings of O'Casey's other plays in The Sean O'Casey Reading Series, as well as: symposiums, lectures, film screenings, a musical evening and two exhibitions. To be sure, The Sean O'Casey Season (January 30 – May 25) is an ambitious and laudable undertaking that should prove as enlightening as it is entertaining. Unfortunately, it's distressing to report the first play in their season, The Shadow of a Gunman, is an uneven misfire.

Set in 1920 Dublin during the Irish War of Independence, Gunman revolves around frustrated poet Donal Davaren (a brooding James Russell) who shares a tenement room with Seumus Shields (Michael Mellamphy), a peddler who supports the nationalist cause but wants it to end quickly, and without involving him. The tenement is filled with a plethora of quirky inhabitants, most of which are laboring under the false assumption that Davaren is an I.R.A. assassin who's on the run. The tenement denizens include: Tommy Owens (a wild-eyed Ed Malone) whose enthusiasm for the Republican cause borders on the crazed; Minnie Powell (the lovely Meg Hennessy) a saucy girl who's enamored with Davaren because of his rumored association with the I.R.A.; Adolphus Grigson (John Keating), the resident drunk, and his overbearing wife, Mrs. Grigson (Terry Donnelly); as well as Mr. Gallagher (Robert Langdon Lloyd) who wants Davaren to deliver a plea for help to the I.R.A., and Mrs. Henderson (Una Clancy), a busybody who champions Mr. Gallagher's cause. The play spins into action when Shields' business associate Maguire (Rory Duffy) drops into their room leaving a mysterious bag in his wake. The bag's contents will irrevocably alter the lives of everyone in the tenement in short order.

Directed with a lack of cohesive tone by Ciaran O'Reilly, the biggest problem with this revival is the actors aren't working in the same style. O'Casey's writing in Gunman is a wry mix of eccentric, colorful, character-monologues, combined with the political musings of protagonists whose lives are caught up with the Irish revolutionaries who are resisting the British auxiliary forces. It's a tricky balancing act of comedy and drama that O'Reilly hasn't mastered. As Davaren and Minnie Powell, both James Russell and Meg Hennessy are on the right wavelength with regards to O'Casey's taught style. They exude charm but also deliver their lines with an understatement befitting the seriousness of their situation. Their tenement neighbors, on the other hand, are too over-the-top and overwrought in their characterizations. The contrast is jarring and the play's overall impact is severely lessened.

With that said, if you're a student of theatre or an aspiring actor, The Shadow of a Gunman is recommended simply because it's something of a rarity. The last time it was staged in New York was 20 years ago at the Irish Rep, where director O'Reilly played Seumus Shields, Terry Donnelly again played Mrs. Grigson, and John Keating, now playing Mr. Grigson, played Tommy Owens. Additionally, the physical production of Gunman is terrific, with an impressive all-enveloping scenic design by Charlie Corcoran, period perfect costumes by Linda Fisher & David Toser, evocative lighting courtesy of Michael Gottlieb, excellent sound design by Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab and original music by Ryan Rumery.

The Shadow of a Gunman
Through May 25
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix