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A CurtainUp Review
The Shadow of a Gunman

What danger can there be in the shadow of a gunman?— Minnie Powell
The Shadow of a Gunman
Harry Smith and Michael Mellamphy. (Photo: Carol Rosegg.)
It is 1920, and the Irish battle for independence has begun. In the streets outside the Dublin tenements where budding poet Donal Davoren is visiting his peddler friend Seumus Shields the Irish revolutionaries are clashing with the British auxiliary forces. The locals, including Seumus, side with the rebels, though they clearly have no idea of how violent and tragic things will get.

While the poet-visitor hardly looks, acts or sounds like a gun toting IRA gunman, the lovely young Minnie Powell buys into the rumor that he is indeed one of their volunteers. Donal doesn't confirm these assumptions, but neither does he deny them since this notoriety is apparently making him more appealing to Minnie. The play derives its title from her flirtatious and admiring "What danger can there be in the shadow of a gunman?"

Of course Minnie and the other tenement residents whose interest these rumors about Donal attracts are wrong about his identity. However, this did give O'Casey a chance to prove his belief that comedy was part of any tragedy, especially an Irish one; or, as Seumus Shields observes "It's the Irish people all over. They take a serious thing as a joke and a joke as a serious thing."

And while the mistaken identity business and Donal's failure to correct it gives the play its comic side, it makes the mostly talky first act essentially a building block for the plot's violent and tragic climax.

Given that Shadow. . . did suffer from the structural weaknesses of a fledgling work, the invaluable Irish Rep's co-founders, Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O'Reilly, have now tapped into its strengths twice with vivid, well-paced productions: The first time in 1999 when O'Reilly was on stage as Seamus Shields and Moore directed.

That was back before the company's Chelsea home underwent it's beautiful renovation. Now, making full use of their handsome new setting, Moore and O'Reilly are devoting their entire season to O'Casey's Dublin trilogy, starting with Shadow of a Gunman, . This time it's directed by O'Reilly with solid attention to its blend of humor and horrified distress.

While The Shadow of a Gunman has often been regarded as a mere curtain raiser for its followups—Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars it certainly belongs in this season. Besides, it did, as our review back in 1999 pointed out, broach the ideas in which O'Casey continued to traffic: his ever germane abhorrence of guns and war, something of his self-mocking disdain for the Irish, the pretense of a woman's proper place and the juxtapositioning of the tragic and the comic (per Seumus's quip about the Irish dual approach to a joke).

Though characters we meet in the first act function mainly to plant the seeds for the more action-packed second act, O'Reilly has assembled a splendid team of actors to create a group portrait of the intricate social intercourse within these impoverished tenements.

James Russell and Meg Hennessy do well as the romantic couple, as does Michael Mellamphy as Seumus. But it's the actors in the minor roles who really give them color and meke them less the overly familiar types they've become over the years. Standouts here include two Irish Rep regulars, Terry Donnelly and John Keating, as Mr. and Mrs. Girgson, roles they also impressed with in 1999.

While the theater's renovation didn't result in a hugely expanded stage, it has nevertheless allowed more sophisticated staging and design work. Charlie Corcoran's set is finely detailed and atmosphericaly lit by ryan Rumery and Florian Staab. The director has made effective use of the hallway and stairway leading to the new balcony. Adding to the visual and aural pleasures are Linda Fisher and David Toser's subtly hued costumes.

The Irish Rep's deservedly long and widely praised history has already included work by one of the more current favorite authors of Irish Plays, Conor McPherson (most recently,The Seafarerr, also directed by Mr. O'Reilly). No doubt, one of these days they'll get around to Martin McDonagh's edgy trilogies. But in the meantime, this season is a fine opportunity to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with a man whose much earlier trilogy nailed his reputation as the best Irish playwright of the twentieth century.

In case you'd like to see the 1972 film adaptation of Gunman with a young Richard Dreyfuss as Tommy Owen, the neighbor whose actions lead to the tragic finale, the O'Casey season includes two screenings in its small downstairs theater (2/21 at 7pm and 2/22 at 8pm). Juno and the Paycock will begin performances on March 29th and The Plough and the Stars on April 20th.For details about Sean O'Casey and the history of the revolutionary period that inspired all three plays, be sure to read the company's wonderfully informative program.

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The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O'Casey
Directed by Cierán O'Reilly
Cast:Una Clancy as Mrs. Henderson, Terry Donnelly as Mrs. Grigson, Rory Duffy as Mr. Maguire, Meg Hennessy as Minnie Powell, John Keating as Mr. Grigson, Robert Langdon Lloyd as Mr. Gallogher, Ed Malone as Tommy Owens, Michael Mellamphy as Seumus Shields, James Russell as Donal Davoren, and Harry Smith as Mr. Mulligan/Auxiliary.
Scenic design by Charlie Corcoran
Costume design by Linda Fisher & David Toser
Sound design by Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab
Lighting design by Michael Gottlieb
Properties by Deirdre Brennan
Stage Manager: April Ann Kline
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes including intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre 132 W. 22nd St.
From 1/30/19; opening 2/12/19; closing 5/25/19.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/09/19 press preview

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