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A CurtainUp Review

The Shadow of a Gunma
By Les Gutman

While all eyes are focused on the moment's fair-haired boy of Irish playwrights, Martin McDonough, and his Leenane trilogy (see CurtainUp's review of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, linked below; another installment, The Lonesome West, is due on Broadway before the end of the current season), The Irish Repertory Theatre reminds us that Sean O'Casey wrote another trilogy -- known as the Dublin trilogy -- that pretty much locked up the "best Irish playwright of the 20th century" category before McDonough's parents were likely born. The Shadow of a Gunman raised the curtain on that trilogy, only to be eclipsed in short order by the other two. They became O'Casey's best known plays, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars

Notwithstanding, Shadow broaches the ideas in which O'Casey traffics in these and many of his later plays: an abhorrence of guns and war, a soldering self-mocking disdain for the Irish, the pretense of a woman's proper "place" and the juxtopositioning of the tragic and the comic. (O'Casey's mouthpiece here, Seamus Shields, (splendidly portrayed by Irish Rep co-founder Ciaràn O'Reilly), quips that the Irish take jokes seriously while making the serious into a joke.) It is stunning, if shattering, how germane Shadow's subject matter remains today.

As O'Casey's first produced play, The Shadow of a Gunman lacks the dramatic intensity that he found a mere three years later in Plough and the Stars. It is set in Dublin,1922, in an atmosphere of Republican gunmen, ambushes and middle of the night British raids. The first act creeps along as little more than a setup of the second, introducing a melange of interesting characters, as well as a romantic interest and the means by which the play is drawn to its tragic conclusion. Shadow also reveals O'Casey's penchant for fleshing out contradictions and contrasts: ugliness that can be made beautiful vs. that which can only be destroyed; people, who live in an abyss, vs. poets, who live on mountaintops; poets vs. poltroons; and so on..

But it is in the rendering of its peripheral characters that Shadow impresses most: brief but intricate glimpses at the Irish social fabric, all seen here within the confines of a room in a Dublin tenement house shared by Shields, a peddler of things like hairpins and forks and spoons, and Donal Devoren (Declan Mooney), a poet and supposed gunman. And it is in these minor roles that this production also excels. Especially memorable are Mrs. Henderson (a hyper-enthusiatic Rosemary Fine), a boarder in the house, and the proprietors, the Grigson's (Terry Donnelly and Peter Rogan). All of this is terrific, even if there is a feeling that there is something more that O'Casey has not yet found.

A share of what is missing here is attributable to the performances of the romantic pair at the play's core, Mooney and Aedin Maloney, as Minnie Powell. He is never fully convincing as a poet, as the menacing gunman Minnie suspects him of being or as "the shadow of a gunman," as he refers to himself at the end of the first act. She lacks the sort of passion her role occasionally demands. In a word, both seem restrained and unsure at moments when they need to be unthrottled.

Other than the undue moderation in the leads, Charlotte Moore's direction is thoughtful and clean and makes O'Casey's blend of Irish humor and anguish resonate. The set design is not only very evocative but it also makes exceptionally good use of the Irish Rep's limited and difficult stage, probably the best I can remember. Lighting design is quite good, including the special effects toward the end. Sound design is not credited, but is worthy of compliment as well, both as to its part in the special effects and in its choice of appropriate Irish songs.

It's nice to see that the Irish Rep has completed paying homage to O'Casey's trilogy by presenting the least familiar prong, even if in a less than spectacular fashion. Here's hoping that the company will be encouraged to venture on to present some of O'Casey's even-less-frequently staged later plays. 

CurtainUp's review of The Beauty Queen of Leenane
by Sean O'Casey Directed by Charlotte Moore 
with Terry Donnelly, Rosemary Fine, Michael Judd, John Keating, Aedin Maloney, Declan Mooney, Denis O'Neill, Ciaràn O'Reilly, Sean Power and Peter Rogan 
Set Design: Akira Yoshimura and N. Joseph De Tullio 
Costume Design: David Toser 
>Lighting Design: Gregory Cohen 
The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132  West 22nd Street (6/7 AV) (212) 727- 2737 
opened April 15, 1999 open run 
Seen April 14, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman April 16, 1999

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