Revisiting the Comic Tragicomedy of Sean O’Casey

Irish Rep reexamines a challenging classic, set during the Irish War for Independence.

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James Russell, Michael Mellamphy in "Shadow of a Gunman." Photo: Carol Rosegg.

As Sean O’Casey wrote verse as well as plays, and as the protagonist of his play Shadow of a Gunman, now running Off-Broadway at Irish Repertory Theatre, is a poet, we could assume that the work is autobiographical, at least in part. The likelihood is increased by the authentic feel of the play, set in Dublin’s shabby Hilljoy Square in 1920. It also contains a tonal shift of the sort that many dramaturgs would warn playwrights against attempting.

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You might also describe Shadow of a Gunman as a tragicomedy, but the designation implies, as it unfolds, that tragedy and comedy are entwined throughout. Not really in this case, for the play — first produced by the Abbey Theatre in 1923, after O’Casey’s work had received several turndowns — deliberately starts out with comedy as its purpose and then, in the last minutes of Act 2, abruptly swerves into deeply despairing tragedy.

It is further true that as The Shadow of a Gunman progresses, there is the occasional, uh, tragic shadow cast. You sense that, given certain aspects of time and place, dire events must be looming. Yet O’Casey’s comic elements persist.

The explanation must be that O’Casey, presenting the lower class for the first time on the Irish stage, lived among those about whom he was writing. He was aware of and amused by their foibles and had the knack required to catch his characters off-guard. At the same time, O’Casey was aware that his people, no matter how foolishly they behaved as they struggle to get by, lived amidst the Irish war for independence and could be, at any time, cruelly surprised and oppressed by it.

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His moody poet, Donal Davoren (James Russell), lives with a peddler, Seumus Shields (Michael Mellamphy). Their interaction sets the initial tone as lazy Seumus rises late and prepares to leave with a valise of utensils, braces and other paraphernalia that he hopes to unload. Merely donning threadbare clothes over floppy long johns, socks with holes at toe and heel, and forgetting to close his fly, Seumus is already a sight-gag. (Linda Fisher and David Toser are the costumers.)

Once Seumus departs — without his briefly interloping colleague, Mr. Maguire (Rory Duffy), who’s off on a different mission — other comical characters come through the dirty green door to parade themselves for giggles. One is the laughably thin, stentorian Tommy Owens (Ed Malone). Another is gossipy Mrs. Henderson (Una Clancy). Perhaps the most significant is Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy), who has eyes for Donal in no small part because she believes him to be a gunman lying low. During the time that Minnie and Donal have to themselves, O’Casey eases from comedy to innocent romance — thus veering even more deliberately away from a tragic undertone.

Or at least the playwright achieves that end. Yet O’Casey, knowing where he’s headed, slyly inserts seemingly meaningless occurrences into his sinuous script. When Minnie teases Donal to write a poem for and about her, he only writes their names twice on a scrap of paper. Earlier, Mr. Maguire had asked to leave his bag with Donal and Seumus, a nothing moment that turns out to be not so nothing.

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Director Ciaran O’Reilly stages the first of this season’s tributes to O’Casey (Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars come next, comprising his “Dublin Trilogy”), and stresses both the comic and tragic urgencies. O’Reilly wants the audience so immersed in the period that set designer Charlie Corcoran turns much of the space into an environment of damaged brick walls.

Diligent, intelligent and viscerally connected to the material as O’Reilly is, there seemed to be a slight disconnect during the comic sequences at the press performance I attended. I wondered if the actors, as O’Reilly guided them, knew that the vital, silly people they were playing were meant to be funny and, without realizing it, reflexively pushed for the laughs. This ran the risk of transforming the denizens of Hilljoy Square from comic everybodys to laughable nuisances.

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By comparison, there’s no problem when, in Act 2, the atmosphere changes so radically — with the valuable help of lighting designer Michael Gottlieb and sound designers Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab. When the latter two let loose their sonic magic, I know I wasn’t the only person jolted in my seat.

As Donal, Russell can be heartbreaking; he brings something special to the Act 2 opening line — “The cold chaste moon” — getting chuckles from those four words of poetic cliché. Mellamphy’s Seumus is a terrific blowhard who gets a devastating comeuppance. Minnie, as Hennessy, is charming at girlish seduction. Malone, Clancy, Duffy and the rest of the 10-member cast are either in full form or well on their way there.

It could be that the tricky comedy-tragedy challenge presented by O’Casey’s work is the reason why it isn’t revived frequently enough. To date, there has only been one Broadway venture — in 1958, when The Actors Studio tackled it, produced by the legendary Cheryl Crawford. All the more reason to see the play now, and to be grateful for the opportunity.