Some playwrights employ the following format: Make’em laugh, laugh, laugh, then make’m cry. Other playwrights go for: Make’em laugh, laugh, laugh, then terrify.
That’s what I thought when I staggered out of the Irish Rep’s brilliant production of Sean O’Casey’s “The Shadow of a Gunman,” directed by Ciaran O’Reilly and last produced by this company in 1999.
Set in a rooming house in Dublin during the 1920 Irish War of Independence, a veritable cast of characters traipse through one shabby room in particular, belonging to the slovenly Seumus Shields ( Michael Mellamphy, terrific in his ordinariness and his onesie), a kitchenware salesmen who has a habit of oversleeping on work days, and his friend who has come to stay, the fastidious Donal Davoren (James Russell, a perfect embodiment of a bard), a poet who is part dreamy artist, part thwarted artist. Davoren, for all his quoting of Shelley and Shakespeare, does not have a moment’s peace to finish writing a poem. As soon as he sits down at his typewriter, there is another knock at the door.
The first is Mr. Maguire (Rory Duffy), a workmate of Seumus’s. He speaks cryptically about how his day has taken a detour but does not explain why, and leaves a suitcase behind for safekeeping. Next is the officious Landlord, looking for the rent from Seumus, but this is a fool’s errand and ends with the Landlord giving him until the following week to pay up or get out. He also makes a comment about “lodgers” with a nod to Davoren. After the Landlord leaves, Seumus explains to Davoren there is a rumor that he is on the run, which he finds baffling, but a rooming house is also a hive of gossip. And gossip there is.
Seumus finally dresses and goes to work, leaving Davoren alone in a quiet room at last. But not for long. Minnie (Meg Hennessey, charming and guileless), a young woman who also lives in the boarding house, comes to call. She has a crush on Davoren— not that he seems to mind. As he tries to compose a poem for Minnie and comes closer to her as he recites, in bursts Tommy Owens (Ed Malone, hilarious), a wide-eyed motormouth who is convinced that Diviner is a gunman for the IRA. Enter Mrs. Henderson (Una Clancy, boisterous and warm ) with old Mr. Gallogher (Robert Langdon Lloyd) who, at her urging, stutters out a letter aloud in what becomes a comic performance piece. There are now five people in a very cramped room. By the end of Mr. Gallogher’s letter, word comes that Macguire was killed in an ambush, which is nicely underplayed.
Minnie asks if Davoren knows Macguire. “Yes—no, no; I didn’t know him, no, I didn’t know him Minnie,” he says. So now everyone in the room believes what Tommy Owens believes: that Davoren is a gunman on the run. This, in turn, makes him more attractive to Minnie. Davoren is not entirely displeased with this idea. One by one, each person leaves the room until he is left alone with Minnie. They finally seal their affection with a kiss. After Minnie leaves, he muses, “…A gunman on the run! Be careful, be careful, Donal Davroen. But Minnie is attracted to the idea, and I am attracted to Minnie. And what danger can there be in being the shadow of a gunman?”
Unfortunately, the answer is a great deal of danger indeed, to tragic effect.
The second act opens in moonlight, making the shabby room look almost beautiful (kudos to Lighting Designer Michael Gottlieb and Scenic Designer Charlie Corcoran for the gorgeous lighting and spot-on rooming house – together they have made one of the most memorable sets seen on or off-Broadway in a decade). Seumus is trying to sleep while Davoren audibly tries to compose a poem. Both exercises are futile. Davoren gets into bed but his rest is short-lived: a rattled, nervous Mrs. Grigson (Terry Donnelly) cannot find her husband, comes into their room and does not leave until a god-awful row is heard coming down the walk made by Mr. Grigson (John Keating, uproarious and oblivious to his own inebriated state), rolling in from a night on the town that involved an awful lot of whisky and not a lot else. He, too, comes into the room and talks and talks and talks and does not leave.
The first act of “The Shadow of a Gunman” and part of the second are written and played almost the same: for comic effect, with director O’Reilly following the lead of playwright O’Casey. My editor commented that each character was a “type” and I believe this was done on purpose, to lull the audience into a false sense of Irish security: to create a world in that room of storytellers, of beautiful Irish lasses and romance, of gullible patriots, of lyrical poetry recitations under the moon, of drink-laden hilarity.
That’s when the genius of playwright O’Casey and director O’Reilly strike, with a boom. A literal boom. And destroys all that was good and wonderful; all the good that man can create that filled that room, with bombs and guns and terror and death. With all the depravity man is capable of.
Too close to home? Not close enough? The subject matter seems timely, though O’Casey wrote it in 1923. It could be set anywhere. It could be any war. This is not a “time capsule” play. Some things do not change for the better. Sometimes, history teaches us nothing. But the Irish Rep can and does illuminate, with this production of “The Shadow of a Gunman.”