"Shadow of a Gunman" by Sean O'Casey; directed by Tomas Mac Anna; settings and costumes by Wendy Shea; lighting by Leslie Scott; with Desmond Cave, Donal McCann, Jim Sheridan, Philip O'Flynn, Maire O'Neill, Martina Stanley, Dermot Tuohy, Michael O'Brian, Maureen Toal and Barry

One of the activities in which the Irish stand preeminent is the performance of Irish plays. Others may attempt it from time to time, but they tend to fall into a dizzy swoon after airing their Irish accent for a scene or two, and we rarely feel the beat of life in them again.

The advantages of having Irish characters played by Irish actors were emphatically reaffirmed in Baltimore Monday night, as the Abbey Theatre opened its production of Sean O'Casey's "Shadow of a Gunman," This is one of O'Casey's more delicate and comic works -- hardly a shot is fired or a bomb exploded before the final 15 minutes, and the wounded parties have the decency to remain off stage. Without the universal language of blood and gore, the need for homegrown players becomes even more pressing. Fortunately, the Abbey has shipped over a cadre of its best.

"Gunman" concerns a day in the life of Donal Davoren, a down-and-out poet who has sublet half a room in a friend's flat in Dublin. The year is 1920, but the general flavor of current events -- a curfew, the call for independence and the constant dance of death between IRA gunmen and British soldiers -- has a certain timeliness. The setting could almost as easily be Belfast in 1981.

Davoren is an elliptical fellow compared to the baggart Tommy Owens, the flirtatious Minnie Powell and the rest of his new neighbors, who add up to a wonderful cross section of ordinary Dubliners. The bland truth is that Davoren is just the poet he pretends to be. "I have no connection with the politics of the day," he insists, "and I don't want to have a connection."

But no one believes him. They mistake his brooding, poetic nature for the mystery of a gunman on the lam. He, in turn, exploits this confusion to win the affections of the pretty girl upstairs. It is an innocent bluff, but it will come to a bad end. There are no innocent bluffs, O'Casey is saying. Or, as Davoren puts it, "That's what the Irish people are all about -- making a joke of a serious thing and a serious thing of a joke."

Desmond Cave makes Davoren an appealing hero, but the character is a bystander to much of the play, so the sterner acting tests lie elsewhere. They are smartly met in almost every case. Donal McCann, Jim Sheridan and Philip O'Flynn give memorable portraits of indolent types no foreigner would dare etch as sharply as O'Casey did. O'Flynn, in particular, gives a wonderful performances as Adolphus Grigson, an old, booming drunk who uses the Bible as his authority for controlling his wife's every move and keeps denying that he was "born in a bottle" -- although no one has said otherwise.

Two performances are cheapened by stock characterizations and bad choices of makeup. Minnie, played by Maire O'Neill, comes across as a foolish twit, which makes her final heroics (and Davoren's interst in her) implausible. And the mustache on Barry McGovern, who plays an old Republican sympathizer with polysyllabic tendencies, might have been affixed to his upper lip with Elmer's Glue-All.

The production offers one more cause for complaint. The British raid that brings things to a climax has "sham" written all over it. A neighbor is continually going out the door to report on the havoc being wreaked by the soldiers in adjacent apartments, but the scenery gives us no sense of the geography out there, and we see no other signs of a disturbance. Still, in fairness to the company, it should be said that "Shadow of a Gunman" compresses a preposterous number of offstage developments into a preposterously small amount of time.

This was O'Casey's first play, which may help excuse its crudities. But the characters, the dialogue, the compassion and the outrage of the play show a writer who knew more about his craft at the start of his career than most playwright know at the end.