Dublin in 1920 was a violent, dangerous place to be.
Alongside the general poverty, which was a kind of violence in itself, there were marauding bands of Black and Tans to contend with, the infamously cruel British mercenary forces sent to Ireland by Winston Churchill in the last hope of quelling all Republican insurrection.
The Shadow Of A Gunman, Sean O'Casey's first play to be performed at the Abbey and now currently being staged at The Irish Rep as part of their remarkable O'Casey trilogy, is set in 1920 and it presupposes that you are familiar with the social background of the play (and if you're Irish you probably will be).
It's the middle of the War of Independence and attitudes have hardened on both sides. The streets echo to occasional loud gun battles and normal life tries, and fails, to elude the ever-widening conflict.
Set in a falling down Dublin tenement building where entire families are forced to inhabit one room flats, O'Casey introduces us to young would-be poet Donal Davoren (James Russell) and his unlikely bedfellow Seumas Shields (Michael Mellamphy).
One man seems to represent the imaginative and passionate side of the Irish nature and the other is a scheming entrepreneur who is late with the rent and one step ahead of the street. So revolutionary and country revolutionary. So far so familiar then.
Into this combustible mix O'Casey then introduces the real-life gunman Mr. Maguire (Rory Duffy) who drops off a wildly suspicious looking bag and immediately runs off, the plot device delivered.
The barometer is set for storms from the opening scene, in other words. But what makes the play so gripping is O'Casey's understanding of the effect that the cycles of history and conflict have on ordinary people, the majority of them innocent at that.
Shadow has an odd seriocomic tone that is famously tricky to capture without tilting over into melodrama or farce. Director Ciaran O'Reilly has cast the play wisely, keeping the action moving forward with a light touch that allows the play's themes to emerge at a perfect pace.
Russell shows us Donal's sensitivity as well as his delusion. In fact, he rescues the character from the broad strokes of generations of predecessors, so that a character emerges rather than a caricature. It's an investment that anchors the entire production and a reminder of how a singular commitment can elevate an entire enterprise.
But he's joined in his efforts by an equally talented cast. Meg Hennessy plays Minnie Powell as the spirited and flirtatious young Irish women O'Casey wrote her as, but she also finds her courage and her spirit, which is the beating heart of the play.
Men in O'Casey's world make speeches that rarely cohere with their actions. They are variously venal, cowardly, jealous, spiteful, boastful, bullying and occasionally lethal, and in Shadow we have two unforgettable examples.
It's the women in O'Casey who bear the brunt. Because of her love for Donal, young Minnie makes a gamble that has fatal consequences, but unlike her poetic paramour and his loquacious roommate, she doesn't make a song and dance about it or beat her breast, she goes quietly to her fate with mouth closed and her eyes open.
Not everyone seems to notice O'Casey's early feminism, but it is everywhere in the Rep's celebration of O'Casey's classic trilogy. Terry Donnelly is ideal casting as Mrs. Grigson, the one woman Greek chorus, and she's superb at capturing the pathos beneath this complex and sometimes contradictory work.
Shadow can be seen as a rough draft of the great work that followed it (the extraordinary Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and The Stars) but O'Reilly reminds us that it is its own animal too and that it has a great deal to say to our own divisive era.
As the craven, penny-pinching Shields, Mellamphy and Russell are early rough drafts of our own penny-pinching Dublin property classes (and chattering classes) circa 2019 and 98 years after the play debuted its still an open question which of these pair of self-defeating dunces is the true progenitor of our own times.
Shadow of a Gunman is now playing at the Irish Rep as part of their 30 anniversary season. For tickets call 212-727-2737.