All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Donal Davoren is in a precarious position, A newcomer to a Dublin tenement in which he’s sharing rooms with a slight acquaintance, Seamus Shields, Davoren is a quiet poet whose recited works reveal genuine talent. All he wants to do is spend his days, and nights, composing his verse, but the year is 1920, Irish independence from England is a year away, the fighting will go on for decades, and Davoren is believed to be something he is not, a gunman, i.e. a sniper, for the Irish partisans.
Every denizen of the Hilljoy Square rooming house in the working class section of North Dublin is sure Davoren is a soldier in hiding. The young man never goes out and keeps to himself. He must be on the run from the dreaded black and tans dispatched by the British to keep order in Ireland.
The tenement dwellers are not subtle about Davoren’s alleged secret. Each visitor to his and Shields’s apartment mentions it a few times during his or her stay, vowing always to keep mum and protect Davoren from being caught. They say they feel both more secure and more in danger with a gunman in the house.
Various characters in Seán O’Casey’s early play, “The Shadow of a Gunman,” also mention that in Ireland, what is serious can be funny, and what is funny can become deadly serious.
That seems to be the tack O’Casey takes as he offers an observant, perceptive comedy that is set amid mortal turmoil and has broadly grave overtones.
O’Casey has an ear for Irish cadences and the Irish national knack for turning a vividly colorful phrase. The conversation and side comments of all the tenement inmates are filled with the wit and music of the verbally versatile. Sardonic remarks abound, as no one at Hilljoy Square lets any occasion to taunt or retort go by unfulfilled. Gossip is the lingua franca, and the subject is usually the latest casualty of Ireland’s ongoing struggle, liltingly and almost poetically expressed. Comedy is derived from the hushed tones or bold declarations the garrulous, gregarious characters make. Pathos lingers nearby as you hear how people are fighting and dying on both sides of the battle. With all the talk of war, and the delightful exposure of personalities, O’Casey also finds room to fit a love story into his play, Davoren’s returned affection for a young woman who comes to his attention by borrowing milk, Minnie Powell.
“The Shadow of a Gunman” is as basic as you get in terms of playcrafting. While O’Casey provides a lot of texture and oodles of entertainment, he hasn’t yet developed the depth and intricacy that denote his masterpieces, “Juno and the Paycock” and “The Plough and the Stars.” Peggy Mecham and John Gallagher’s production of the work for Irish Heritage Theatre at Philadelphia’s Adrienne Skybox felicitously brings out all of the spirit and underlying misery in the play. Mecham and Gallagher’s is a solid, straightforward reading that makes O’Casey’s intentions clear and that earns laughs while wringing hearts.
Mecham and Gallagher’s cast is always direct in their readings. They have their brogues down pat and enjoy speaking O’Casey’s lines from which the comic notes become the loudest. The actors, while all competent, are at various stages of ability. Their direct presentation lets you see and appreciate the mechanics of O’Casey’s play. It also engenders some predictability. But that doesn’t matter, as the play has enough content to hold you, and the sincere production remains engagingly entertaining throughout.
Mecham and Gallagher are luckiest in the lead performance of Dexter Anderson as Donal Davoren. Anderson conveys a sweetness and gentility that would easily belie, or camouflage, any idea he may a rebel sniper.
Within Davoren’s politness, Anderson shows a man who can be caustic when exasperated by the laziness of his feckless roommate, Shields, and stirred to romance when he encounters the saucy but smart Minnie. He also captures the sense of man who prefers to be left alone by his typewriter and night-time candle to conceive and write his verse.
Davoren is a man of culture. He can discuss poets with Shields, who surprises in his knowledge of Shelley, Yeats, and others. He likes music and would be content to read, write, and relax to classics. The war doesn’t affect him. He will declare himself a Republican, one who favors Irish independence, as all the Hilljoy Square lodgers do, but he shows no interest in being a soldier or even a runner for the cause.
Anderson’s Davoren is also a man of stature. Young as he is, and feeling his way through life, he has an idea of the path he’d like to follow and the discipline he has to muster to work towards it. Anderson’s Davoren creates a sane, stable buffer by which to compare Shields and others who visit, most of them thinking Davoren has sway with the IRA and can get political and other favors done.
Veteran stalwarts of local stages, John Cannon and Mary Pat Walsh, also amuse grandly as a husband who likes to tipple and always announces his next drink by saying, “But it’s only my first,” and a wife who is concerned not only with her man’s absence after curfew but with the general state of affairs that can find decent people raided by the black and tan looking for weapons and contraband.
Angelique Bouffiou is fun as a neighbor who is always handy for spreading the news of the day with commentary. Eric Pedersen is nicely forthright as a man who has a complaint against a rude and noisy neighbor he’d like Davoren to bring to the attention of the local IRA command.
Mecham and Gallagher’s production, which cuts O’Casey’s short play in half with an intermission, goes along smoothly. Suspense is generated until you know for certain whether or not Davoren is an operative in sheep’s clothing, by a kit a friend of Shields leaves in Davoren’s room, and by the eventual appearance of the British police. The last instance is the most palpable and the most likely to put you on edge.
Comedy comes from everywhere. O’Casey’s dialogue in intrinsically funny, and Mecham and Gallagher’s cast handles it well.
Also there are the clownish characters of Shields and another resident, Tommy Owens, both of whom brag of more than they are ever likely to accomplish. Shields, as played by Kevin Rodden, is too peripatetic and jumpy to sit down to anything real. He is the type to would like to coast by having his meals, beers, and naps without being troubled by much else, such as work or taking any genuine risk for the Irish cause. Owens, is even more of a wastrel who makes a show of being brave or romantic but who has the gumption of a sloth and the honor of a reprobate. Jimmy Guckin plays him to be an even more worthless Shields, whose behavior has already prompted Davoren to consider moving to other, quieter, less volatile quarters. Owens standing on Shields’s bed, which is never remade, may be the last straw.
Josephine Patane is a good foil to Anderson’s Davoren as Minnie Powell. Milk is obviously the last thing on her mind when she enters Davoren’s room during her break from work to allegedly request some.
Minnie, though wooed by Owens, has her sights on the shy but interesting poet who stuns Shields by eating with a fork. She approaches coyly, even though the willing, and smitten, Davoren is ready to succumb to her charms immediately. The romance is interrupted by several factors, but Patane and Anderson leave a hint of it in the stage air that makes you want to see this plot line more developed.
Minnie is one of the more actively committed of the characters to the Irish struggle. He thinks fast and acts bravely, setting up the most tense sequences of Mecham and Gallagher’s production.
Mecham also serves as costume designer, and the room she provides for Davoren and Shields seems quite authentic, including Shields’s dirty laundry piled by his oft-used bed while Davoren’s area looks pristine. Davoren’s desk, stage center, makes the perfect focal piece, even if it is stacked with books, writing paper, a typewriter, and that candle Davoren uses at night so he doesn’t disturb Shields. Other furnishings imply a room in a working class tenement and give some flavor to the production.
Andrew Cowles’s natural lighting, brighter in daytime, orange when the rough electricity in one, smoky and dark but for Davoren’s candle at night, provides atmosphere and mood. Bob Perdick’s sound design adds to the tension as the black and tan near Hilljoy Square and when we hear evidence of conflict going on in the Dublin streets.
“The Shadow of a Gunman” is the first play in O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy and will be followed this fall by an Irish Heritage Theatre production of “Juno and the Paycock” and in the spring of 2016 with a staging of “The Plough and the Stars.”
“The Shadow of a Gunman,” produced by Irish Heritage Theatre, runs through Saturday, April 25, at the Adrienne Skybox, 2030 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 19. Tickets are $25 with various discounts and can be obtained by visiting www.irishheritagetheatre.org. (Cash only at door.)