Category: Archive

Theater Review: Rep’s ‘Gunman’ shoots to top

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN, by Sean O’Casey. Directed by Charlotte Moore. Featuring Declan Mooney, Ciaran O’Reilly, Sean Power and ‘din Maloney. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St. Through May 30.

When the Abbey Theatre produced "The Shadow of a Gunman" in 1923, after rejecting several of Sean O’Casey’s early efforts, it afforded the playwright, then 43, his first experience with genuine success.

"Gunman" was followed in 1924 by "Juno and the Paycock," and, in 1926, by "The Plough and the Stars," the final part of what has come to be known as O’Casey’s "tenement trilogy," a troika of tragicomedies of which a large measure of the Dublin-born dramatist’s enduring fame still rests.

Of the three plays, "The Shadow of a Gunman" is probably thought to be the least significant, possibly because it is the most accessible, with its simple, straight-ahead plotline and O’Casey’s avoidance of the risky tonal shifts that characterize both "Juno" and "Plough."

"The Shadow of a Gunman, in fact, can play as a kind of comic melodrama, with ironic undertones, and that’s pretty much the way the Irish Repertory Theatre has approached the work for its new production, scheduled to run through May 30.

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The result, as directed by the Rep’s artistic director, Charlotte Moore, with an unusually appealing and unified cast, turns out to be one of the most satisfying productions the group has ever mounted.

O’Casey, in this instance, kicks off from a position similar to the one John Millington Synge had evoked in "The Playboy of the Western World," which the Abbey had produced 16 years earlier, namely the Irish capacity for creating heroes out of ordinary mortals when the need arises.

In "Playboy," the residents of a Mayo village hail young Christy Mahon, a mild-mannered, even cowardly, lad who stumbles into their midst as a hero because he claims to have murdered his father. When the elder Mahon appears, injured but alive, their admiration for the younger man fades almost to the point of disappearance.

In "The Shadow of a Gunman," O’Casey inserts a young would-be poet, Donal Davoren, into the turbulent world of a shabby Dublin residence on Hilljoy Square in 1922, with political strife raging in the streets beyond the structure’s battered walls.

O’Casey’s 11 characters represent something of a cross-section of the city’s political opinion at the time, ranging from loyalty to the crown to fervent sympathy for the Irish Volunteers.

Much like Synge’s Mayo villagers, O’Casey’s hard-pressed and mainly unemployed urbanites make of the new arrival what they need or want him to be. In the case of Davoren, the tenements dwellers come to regard him as a revolutionary gunman on the run, an outlaw hiding among them and only pretending to be a writer.

O’Casey knew his working-class Dubliners well, having labored among them as a newspaper seller, docker, stone breaker, railway worker, and builder’s helper, among other things.

The playwright actually set his play in May of 1920, during the Anglo-Irish War, which began in 1919 and ended in 1921. Director Moore has moved the action forward a couple of years, which doesn’t seem to make much difference one way or the other.

What does matter is that she and her partner, the organization’s production director, Ciaran O’Reilly, have attracted a particularly strong group of actors, with particular emphasis on the work’s three leading roles, Davoren, his roommate, the shambling salesman, Seamus Shields, and the naive young girl, Minnie Powell, who happens to live in the building.

Rep co-founder O’Reilly, with his sure sense of comic timing, gives an unusually good account of himself as the lazy, shiftless Shields, reaping the lion’s share of the endeavor’s laughs without, for the most part, actually leaving the bed where he seems to spend most of his time, while young Davoren keeps late hours trying to compose poetry by candlelight.

Minnie, the idealistic young girl who falls for the poet and suffers grievously for her affection, is given a particularly poignant interpretation by ‘din Maloney, who has given strong performances in several past Irish Rep productions, including "Juno and the Paycock" and "Same Old Moon."

The play’s subtle central role, that of the craven "poet" Davoren, can be something of a minefield in the wrong hands, since, in a sense, his willingness to be regarded without complaint as a fugitive, both romantic and mysterious, causes the tragedy that befalls the innocent heroine and engulfs the other tenement dwellers.

Davoren can appear selfish or even evil, but in the Rep production, Declan Mooney, an unusually agile and appealing performer originally from the Belfast area, creates a sympathetic "poet" who is almost as fresh and innocent-seeming as Minnie herself is.

The production marks Mooney’s first Manhattan appearance, although he has done outstanding work for the Bronx-based Macalla Theatre company, first in the title role in Martin Lynch’s "Rinty" and then, last season, in the group’s staging of Daniel Magee’s "Paddywack."

The Rep cast is exceptional all down the line, from Denis O’Neill’s exasperated landlord and John Keating’s overheated "patriot" to Terry Donnelly and Peter Rogan as a Protestant couple who live in the building.

Equally good are Rosemary Fine and Michael Judd as other neighbors, the combative Mrs. Henderson and the submissive Mr. Gallagher, not to slight Sean Power, also new to the Rep, who takes on a pair of small roles, the devious Maguire and the nameless auxiliary who turns up late in the play’s action.

The stage design, credited to Akira Yoshimura and N. Joseph De Tullio, combines with Gregory Cohen’s lighting and David Toser’s appropriate costuming to make its production of "The Shadow of a Gunman" one of the most richly rewarding accomplishments the group has scored in very nearly a full decade of mainly admirable work.

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