What do William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, Sean O’Casey, AE, George Bernard Shaw, George Moore and Katharine Tynan have in common? Their initials are carved on a tree growing on the property of Coole Park, Gort, in County Galway, the estate Lady Gregory inherited after the death of her husband Sir William Henry Gregory.
That is just one of the tidbits told by the spirit of Lady Gregory (1852-1932) who inhabits the production Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre until the 22nd of March. Written by Lady Augusta Gregory with additional material by Ciarán O’Reilly and directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, the delightful production reveals the life and times of one of the venerable, wry-humored progenitors of the Irish Literary Revival and co- founder of The Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre with William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn.
The production stars Úna Clancy as the lively and candid Lady Gregory who fills out another role in Lady Gregory’s play “McDonough’s Wife at the end of Act II. James Russell portrays a variety of roles and is the humorous Mike McInerney in Lady Gregory’s, “Workhouse Ward” and the Sheep shearer in “McDonough’s Wife.” Russell is erudite and reserved in his portrayal of the philosophical literary genius, poet, playwright William Butler Yeats. And he is the kindly, avuncular Sir William Gregory who was Lady Gregory’s senior by thirty-five years.
We learn they had a son Robert, the pride of their lives whose death Robert mystically foreshadowed in a dream which his cousin also mysteriously had. He died during WWI in a play crash in a death which his mother like any devoted mother never could reconcile easily. Sir William Gregory attempted to practice noblesse oblige for the suffering Irish people under his care at a time when it was least appreciated. And his actions Lady Gregory implies were mischaracterized and reshaped to satisfy another agenda.
Terry Donnelly of the lyrical voice, spot-on authenticity and versatility portrays Anne Horniman friend of the literary lights who helped fund the Irish National Theatre Society. Terry Donnelly also portrays Mary Sheridan, Lady Gregory’s influential, native-speaking Irish nanny who teaches her about the history and folklore of the area. Donnelly constantly surprises with her characterizations as Honor Donohoe in Gregory’s “Workhouse Ward,” and portrayals of Widow Quin, the Narrator, Marian and the character of the Hag 1 in “McDonough’s Wife.”
John Keating rounds out this exceptional ensemble with versatility and humor portraying notaries Wilfred Blunt, Edward Martyn, John Quinn, George Bernard Shaw and Sean O’Casey. He is hysterical and nuanced as Michael Miskell the down-and-out companion of Mike McInerney who wheedles McInerney to remain in impoverishment when he might have stayed with his well-off sister Honor Donohoe (Terry Donnelly). And he is the poignant and raging McDonough who returns from his journeys to discover that the townspeople have eschewed his wife as an “outsider.” Their rejection is particularly loathsome because she dies in childbirth and no one in the xenophobic community wishes to join together to memorialize her passing or help bury her. Dark are Lady G’s themes of bigotry, alienation, shame and guilt in the revelatory “McDonough’s Wife.”
The personification of the Irish literary greats and the effect of their productions (the story of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World is particularly acute and ironic) is fascinating. Their discussions reveal the history of the period memorably with gusto. Gregory’s emblematic presence delivered with good will by Clancy makes the narrative of Lady Gregory’s life ring with truth.
This production is many things: a historical encomium, a mini-revival of Irish playwrights, an affirmation and revisiting of that vital Irish literary renaissance in the early twentieth century and beyond. Importantly, it is a celebration of a woman who accomplished much for Irish theater and cemented the connections between Ireland and the United States, something which Americans need to be reminded of.
The added material by O’Reilly with Lady Gregory’s own words from her autobiography and published journals and from insightful articles by professors and researchers into the amazing time, O’Reilly cobbles together thoughtfully and humorously. The actors enliven the true to life artists, but O’Reilly’s narrative spoken by Gregory with various quotes from real personages coheres dramatically so that the audience remains engaged.
Critically, O’Reilly adds the two productions written by Lady Gregory which reveal her breadth and scope from humorous dialogue and conflict in “The Workhouse,” (finely engendered by director and actors) to the reality of the isolation and xenophobia of the the community where “MDonough’s Wife” takes place. The drama of the latter reflective of the bigotry of isolated communities regarding anyone from another social spectrum i.e. their inability to embrace with Christian grace “the other” has currency for us today. Gregory hit upon a strain of the human condition that is pernicious and seems everpresent despite the hope of religion to expurgate it.
I thought the set was functional and symbolic; the dark green walls with nooks and crannies was where actors sat in character waiting to add their portrayals to the grand stew that was being created. Seamlessly, the set afforded them the opportunity to don costumes secreted there so that they could quickly step into the 22 roles the four actors portrayed with authenticity. The inclusion of the tree with the famous initials of Yeats, et. al and the music, lighting and sound effects added to the production’s appeal.
Clancy’s natural rapport with the audience is expertly directed and developed. The idea to incorporate Lady Gregory’s ritual practice of distributing a Barm Brack to her cast and the audience was fun. The cast distributed the Barm Brack (the delicious fruitcake was moister and less adamantine than the one my Irish-American aunt made) to us. It was a perfect treat after the humorous, ironic conclusion of “Workshouse Ward,” at the end of Act I.
This production is a gem and I do think that educationally it needs to find an audience because of its revelations and historical grist regarding Irish literary history. Above all it is a memorialization and celebration of Lady Gregory, her works, her amazing friends. And, if you like, you may consider taking a trip to the West Country of Ireland to visit Coole Park. There, you will still see the walled garden and “The Autograph Tree” with the initials of Sean O’Casey, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, AE and others, and be able to imagine a time when these writers enjoyed a unique camaraderie and received sustenance for their souls in a little piece of heaven on earth.
Noted are the creative team: Charlie Corcoran (set design) David Toser (costume Design) Michael O’Connor (lighting design) M. Florian Staab (sound design).
Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory runs with 1 intermission at the Irish Repertory Theatre’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre (22nd St. between 6th and 7th) until 22nd March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Sean O’Casey’s compelling The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), the first play of his Dublin Trilogy, has been selected by the Irish Repertory Theatre as the “send off” to introduce their Sean O’Casey Season which has been running from January 30 and will continue through May 25,2019. The first play of the O’Casey Cycle is presented in repertory along with O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars on the Irish Rep’s main stage (132 West 22nd Street).
The plays of the trilogy take place during three pivotal and violent confrontations between Ireland and the United Kingdom: The Irish War of Independence (January 21, 1919-July 11, 1921); The Irish Civil War (June 1922-May 1923) and The Easter Rising (April 24-29, 1916). These wars led to the Republic of Ireland achieving independence from the United Kingdom. However the tribal wounds and ferocious heartbreak and resentments incurred centuries ago that exploded into these wars and ended in an uncertain peace, still abide to this day.
The Irish Rep has chosen to celebrate its 30th anniversary by featuring O’Casey’s trilogy which chronicles the impact of dire events on the impoverished tenement dwellers of Dublin who were often the casualties of war. Revisiting the plays remains important for our time because as O’Casey highlights the effects of division and internecine hatreds, he raises questions about the nature of freedom, sacrifice, art, nationalism, Republicanism and more. Always in the background is the price average individuals are “willing” to pay to achieve self-governance and negotiate the political power plays of forces, organizations and governments not readily understandable nor controllable.
The Shadow of a Gunman ably and concisely directed by Ciarán O’Reilly to achieve O’Casey’s maximum intended effect has as its setting Dublin during the Irish War of Independence (see dates above). The largely guerilla warfare campaigns encompassed brutal clashes between the IRA (referred to as the Old IRA today) appointed as the enforcers of Irish Independence, and many former British WWI veterans known as the “Black and Tans.” These British military units were “volunteered” by England to safeguard Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. However, their undisciplined and harsh tactics exacerbated the conflicts so that repeated incidents of bloodshed and devastation were wrecked upon Dublin society by the IRA and the British military.
How the innocent tenement dwellers of Dublin suffer for the price of a freedom and economic independence that largely remains beyond them is brilliantly chronicled by O’Casey. And indeed, through the excellent work of the ensemble and shepherding of the fine performances by Ciarán O’Reilly, we experience the ironic tragicomedy of happenstance and the true terror of being caught between two ranging enemies who do not care who is swept up in the brutality or destroyed.
The comedy resides largely in the human interactions of the residents of a rooming house and how they present themselves as they negotiate their own political positions and participation or lack of interest in effecting a free Ireland. One central irony is that they underestimate the danger of the warfare that surrounds them until it is too late. In their naivete they assume that struggling writer and poet Donal Davoren (James Russell in a sensitive, angst-ridden and nuanced portrayal) is a member of the IRA and the titular “gunman” of the play.
Davoren, who has newly arrived to the boarding house and is the roommate of Seumus Shields (the humorous, hapless and unwitting Michael Mellamphy whose cowardice is recognizable and empathetic) is treated with dignity and great respect by the other residents. Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy renders a feisty, sweet and charming portrait of innocence and bravery) especially finds Donal irresistible for she is enamored of the romantic notions of heroism and courage that gunman fighting for a free Ireland display. Of course, the irony O’Casey delivers in blow after blow by the end of the play dispels everyone’s romantic notions of freedom fighters. And we are reminded that dying for freedom and liberty are propaganda, especially when there is a shortage of brave and courageous souls who are willing to take risks facing off against a loaded gun.
O’Casey presents the issues and themes immediately. He introduces the Everyman’s perspective which many of the renters embrace, particularly Mellamphy’s Shields. And the playwright fronts that view against the poet/philosopher’s pacifist view of Donal Davoren whom the renters believe to be with the IRA. The irony, if followed to its absurd conclusion in O’Casey’s plot, rings with horrific truth, considering the results and follow-through of their beliefs about him.
Meanwhile, discounting their attitudes about, yet slyly thinking to capture Minnie’s heart by saying little, to Shields Donal beats his breast and cries of the miseries and pains of being a poet. He rails against the commoners for whom he creates his art to little effect. Through him O’Casey reveals an ironic addendum. For all the angst and pain artists go through to create the beauties of art and literature, the works may or may not assert a place of importance in the hearts of citizens in a time of war. (Is O’Casey perhaps being sardonic about the importance of his own work through this character’s mewlings?)
Director O’Reilly gives attention to each of these characters. In his rendition of Casey’s work, we understand that they represent symbolic types in the human panoply of characters that manifest the cowardice and hypocrisy of those who inhabit every society in the throes of violent revolutionary change.
All of them reveal in one way or another the flaws that contribute to the tragedy that occurs by the play’s end. For example the kowtowing, gossiping Tommy Owens (Ed Malone in a humorous turn) exemplifies the toady and hypocrite who brings on the trouble. The alcoholic and abusive husband Mr. Grigson screams out his position as an “Orangeman” sympathetic to the opposite side. John Keating manages to be sincere in his drunkenness and hysterical to boot. However, we note another side of him when Mr. Grigson and Shields swap stories of their bravery in the face of the British, who in actuality frighten them out of their wits. Only Donal remains silent and renders himself invisible in the face of terror. Though the lying bravado is typically understandable, it is also cringe-worthy. For men should be stronger, should they not? O’Casey smashes this notion by the play’s end with a resounding exclamation point which this production succeeds in spearing through our hearts and minds.
Terry Donnelly as the long-suffering Mrs. Grigson delivers a superbly heartfelt, broken and poignant portrayal that takes us into a tragedy that we will remember long after the lights come up. Most importantly, the second act thrums with rapid pacing, suspense and “edge-of-your-seat” fear. We empathize with the Dubliners throughout the experience O’Reilly and the company put us through as they moment-to-moment envelop us with the emotion and horror of unfolding events in real time.
This immediacy is a vital element of O’Casey’s work and the ensemble and the production team render it superbly. For it is the terrifying experience that delivers our epiphany of what the historic Dubliners went through and what occupying troops in Syria and Yemen put innocents through today. The civilians are gun fodder for wars they have not willingly signed on for. Surely, they do not anticipate their lives threatened and lifestyles destroyed by both sides of the warring factions on streets and in homes where children once played and all was safe and secure. Surely, they do not choose between the Scylla and Charybdis of becoming an escaping refugee or staying to be numbered among the dead or disappeared. It was so in Ireland, then, it is so in wars that dot our planet and fuel defense manufacturers’ profits today.
As O’Casey reveals most acutely in the action conveyed by the actors, designers and director of this production, this is THE TERROR. And as the characters experience the horror, uncertainty and helplessness in the face of the oppression and tyranny from both sides, we experience it as well. The tragedy becomes that all who are present as witnesses become the accountable participants and they must live with the regrets imprinted on their souls until they are washed away, if ever.
Kudos to all in the acting ensemble who contribute to making this a soul-sonorous production. Kudos to the design team: Charlie Corcoran (scenic), Linda Fisher & David Toser (costume) Michael Gottlieb (lighting) Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab (sound) Ryan Rumery (original music).
This is a must-see, especially if you are unfamiliar with Shadow of a Gunman which runs with one intermission. The production is a wonderful introduction to Sean O’Casey and if you have been a forever fan, you will be very pleased. Additionally, the Irish Rep in celebration of the playwright is conducting free readings, symposiums, lectures, film screenings and music exhibitions. For more information on the Sean O’Casey Cycle and for tickets to the Dublin Trilogy, check the website.