I keep tabs on the news. I am generally informed on world events and political history.
I can’t say that I am an expert on the Irish Republican Army, or IRA for short, but I know the basic facts: In the 1960s, the IRA, later known as the Provisional Irish Republican Army, existed as a guerrilla organization fighting to end British rule in Northern Island. The battles spanned decades, and saw the British government classify the IRA as a terrorist organization.
Over 1,700 people were killed in actions attributed to the IRA, including 1,000 members of British security forces and several hundred civilians. As the resistance effort continued, the IRA was said to have engaged in robberies, kidnappings and counterfeiting to finance its actions.
A WORLD AWAY
This world of people fighting for their freedom and individuality is the tapestry upon which “The Kelly Girls” is painted with dark colors, intricate detail and true artistic vision.
Playing now in its world premiere through April 1 at The Factory Theater in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, “The Kelly Girls,” from playwright and company member Shannon O’Neill, is a powerhouse production marked by exquisitely talented actors, phenomenal direction and a text that will make you think. It also will make you feel. And that is the highest compliment I can give.
Reading the notes of playwright O’Neill and director Spenser Davis prior to the opening night performance, I was a tad worried I was in over my head. Would I, as a layperson, understand the history and politics of Northern Ireland in the 1960s and ’70s enough to enjoy the production?
Those worries quickly were put to rest as O’Neill’s work came to life with a bang, and unfolded with a gradual brilliance culminating as an undeniably magnificent, intimate drama.
O’Neill’s dialogue provides ample insight into events and history, so that the story makes sense even to those unfamiliar with the politics. For at the core of the play is the story of two sisters – Fianna Kelly and Regan Kelly – whose lives are changed forever by their involvement in the IRA.
Indeed, while the IRA story line is fascinating and expertly written, the relationship between two sisters is the heart that makes this play beat in a tragic yet beautiful way. At one point, I found myself realizing you could take these two sisters and put them in any kind of story about armed conflict, and it would work. That’s how well-written the characters are, and how perfect the performances of Amber Washington and Brittney Brown as Fianna and Regan.
The Kelly family, living in Belfast, are well known in the IRA movement. Shane and Dierdre Kelly, nicely played by Ben Veatch and Anne Sheridan Smith, have lived their lives in Northern Ireland. They want peace. They want freedom, and they aren’t afraid to use guns to pursue those desires.
After tragedy strikes one of their parents, Fianna and Regan find themselves compelled to take the fight to the next level, aligning themselves with the offshoot Provisional IRA. This brings Provisional IRA leaders Hugh Feeney (Patrick Blashill) and Gerry Sullivan (Rob Koon), and soldiers Brendan (Elliot Sagay), Denny (Joshua Servantez) and Oscar (Vic Kuligoski) into their lives – changing the course of their family’s history.
The importance of these characters should not be undersold. However, I will let the nature of their involvement unfold for you when you attend “The Kelly Girls,” and witness the power of these remarkable actors.
Mandy Walsh also appears throughout the play in the integral role of Aoife Connolly, who is tasked with finding the truth about the IRA. It, too, is a strong performance.
All in all, the acting by the entire cast is impressive. We forget almost immediately that the actors may not be traditional choices for Irish characters. They embody the traits and emotions that matter in conveying the story.
“The Kelly Girls” is a play that tackles the difficult question of allegiance. When you pledge your allegiance to a cause – are you pledging your support of the ideas or of the leader? And, if those ideas or leaders change, what does that do to the oath you took? Furthermore, where should an allegiance to a cause come in the grand hierarchy in relation to one’s allegiance to family, friends, country and the truth?
O’Neill, a fifth-generation Irish American, has a penchant for in-depth research and a gift for dialogue. Great dialogue balances conveying an immediate idea while consistently moving the overall story forward – always instilling in the audience a thorough understanding and thirst for more.
Leading up to this world premiere, “The Kelly Girls” had gone through 15 drafts and multiple workshops. If I were a dramaturg, this play is one I would want to jump on in a heartbeat. It is so close to perfect, it could only benefit from touches as delicate as those of the most skilled surgeon.
The Factory Theater is an intimate storefront theater. The seats are packed tight, with the audience mere inches from the performers. The kind of acting necessary to succeed in such a space requires truth and honesty.
Not a single person in this production is too big with their character. The audience never sees anyone “acting.” We see only the characters and the story. This is the kind of realism many actors dedicate their lives to achieve.
Similarly, the attention to detail by props designer Meg X. McGrath is absolutely riveting. Dialect coach Lauren Grace Thompson, set designer Manny Ortiz, fight director Chris Smith, costume designer Rachel Lambert and sound designer Hannah Foerschler all put forth winning efforts. Light designer Benjamin Carne performs minor miracles creating just the right ambience as we transition seamlessly from scene to scene.
Davis, as a director, has created something searing and indelible. He masterfully weaves his touches into the O’Neill script. As brilliant as the text is, this is a production where the talents of the director are equally apparent.
(Street parking is readily available; proof of vaccination is required, and masks are recommended.)
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “The Kelly Girls”
WHERE: The Factory Theater, 1623 W. Howard St., Chicago, near Howard Red Line station
WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays through April 1, plus 8 p.m. March 23 and 30
INFORMATION: 312-275-5757, www.TheFactoryTheater.com
Originally published by Northwest Herald/Shaw Media.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area
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