"Did you ever see the like of the Irish people?" marvels peddler Seumas Shields in Olney Theatre's current production of "The Shadow of a Gunman." "Oh, this is a hopeless country," he adds.
That's the constant refrain in Sean O'Casey's two-act play about Ireland's deadly political strife, which itself has been a constant refrain for centuries. The Olney's production, directed by James D. Waring, captures the bleakness of O'Casey's classic, as well as some of its power, but occasionally grows tedious in the hands of some unfinished actors.
Whether you'd enjoy such a depressing business depends largely on your mood, plus your tolerance for -- or, perhaps, appreciation of -- such time-honored stereotypes of the genre as the drunken/macho Irishman, the dreamy Irishman, the superstitious Irishman, the noisy Irish fishwife, the savage English soldier . . .
The action takes place in a Dublin tenement around 1920, during an uprising against English rule. Simple people try to lead normal lives while the Irish Republican Army and the Black and Tans fight it out for the future of the Republic. The IRA partisans plant bombs for the cause; the fearsome Black and Tans stage midnight raids. The innocent, of course, are the victims.
As Donal Davoren, the play's poet and everyman, actor Jarlath Conroy, who was born in County Galway, heads a cast largely of Irish ancestry. He plays the role as if in pain, creaking around the seedy set like an old man, and flashes a fixed grimace instead of a grin.
His performance is effective, especially when set off against Raymond Hardie's lively Seumas Shields -- the two of them quoting Shakespeare in a sprightly bout of oneupmanship. Their scenes, mixing Donal's doleful fatalism and Seumas's crazed sense of survival, are consistently the production's best.
Terrence Currier is also nice to watch as Adolphus Grigson, the local drunk, playing the part not so much as a drunk but as a man striving mightily to seem sober.
The rest of the cast, including Brigid Cleary as the the blushing belle who becomes the play's tragic heroine, is uneven. Too often, bits of business that O'Casey has supplied as comic relief drag on and on; it's a welcome relief when they're over.
THE SHADOW OF THE GUNMAN -- At the Olney through September 19.