On the eve of partition, Donal Davoren (Adam Petherbridge, the understudy, in the performance I attended) is just trying to write some verse. Living in a cramped Dublin tenement visited by a rotating cast of caricatures, Davoren is constantly interrupted by the havering of his neighbors, who are under the impression that he is an IRA gunman on the run. He is not, but after receiving some pleasant attention from Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy), who is clearly attracted to the danger he represents, Davoren decides not to disabuse anyone of their romantic notions about him. Still, with the Black and Tans on the loose, it is just as dangerous to play a gunman as it is to be one. Indeed, with youngsters like Tommy Owens (Ed Malone) babbling about dying for his country, the delineation between schoolboy playing and grown-up soldiering becomes precariously thin.
Seán O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman, then, documents the devastation of the Irish War of Independence while critiquing the kind of masculine posturing that perpetuates rather than arrests this violence. Unfortunately, as with many productions at the Irish Rep, director Ciarán O’Reilly’s revival is respectful but underwhelming; few bold choices have been made, and while the cast dutifully speaks their lines and apes the emotions of their characters, there is no vitality here, no genuine sense of fear or instability or desperation. One gets the feeling the production is motivated by nothing but deference to O’Casey as an enshrined and canonized playwright, and nothing sinks a classical revival like obedience to—rather than conversation with—the text.