“The Shadow of a Gunman,” Sean O’Casey’s tragicomic 1923 play about gun violence, patriotism and empty rhetoric, has returned to the Irish Repertory Theater, the first production in a season devoted to his work. And like most Irish Rep shows, there’s little interest in reinterrogating the play: This is a revival, not a reinvention.
Instead, the director Ciaran O’Reilly aims to show how playable “The Shadow of a Gunman” remains. Its context — the Irish war of independence — won’t be especially familiar to most audiences, but the idea of people fighting and dying for beliefs they may understand only imperfectly isn’t exactly dated.
O’Casey, a luminary of the Anglo-Irish renaissance, was a satiro-comic writer with a big-time dark side and an enduring faith in human self-deception. He practiced the kind of realism in which you can smell how filthy the sheets are. Despite the comedy, the Dublin slum-dwellers who populate his plays are fully realized characters, not shabby cartoons, and he had a cocked ear for the absurd poetry of their speech. He also knew how quickly and ruinously a joke might go wrong, how comedy can in an instant turn its face to tragedy.
In “The Shadow of a Gunman,” Donal Davoren (James Russell), a would-be poet, and Seumas Shields (Michael Mellamphy), a threadbare peddler with I.R.A. sympathies, share a grungy tenement room. During an ordinary morning, Seumas’s friend Mr. Maguire, an I.R.A. gunman, comes to drop off a bag, and Seumas tells Donal that everyone in the building thinks Donal is a gunman on the run. Donal doesn’t hate the idea, especially when Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy), the Republican babe a few rooms over, implies that she finds gunmen sexy. “What danger can there be in being the shadow of a gunman,” he wonders to himself. Maybe he should look inside Maguire’s bag.
Mr. O’Reilly’s production doesn’t hit any of the themes too hard. If he does locate the brutality in much of the comedy, he treats a grim play lightly. If you’re worried that you may not find gun violence especially funny, just lean back and luxuriate in the language. (The accents may take a minute to suss; you’ll get there.) Besides, the Irish Rep remains one of the most reliable places to enjoy rowdy, all-in character acting, and it’s here in plenty. The Irish Rep’s great clown John Keating, an exuberant string bean with a shock of curly hair, is nearly upstaged by Ed Malone, a younger actor built along the same pleasantly absurd lines and a deft physical comedian. Robert Langdon Lloyd does fine work, too.
But when the play takes its uncorrectable skid into tragedy, there’s enough dramatic force to make you feel for the characters, even the ones you laughed at. At nearly 100 years old, O’Casey’s play still packs heat.