Fighting a revolution looks like glorious fun from the outside. On the inside, you see friends die and family members suffer, and you have to kill people you’re not sure deserved it.
In “The Kelly Girls,” a play about Northern Ireland during The Troubles, two sisters join the violent Provisional Irish Republican Army. They are full of idealism, ready to fight for a united Ireland and avenge their father, a tavern owner who was killed by a bomb. But they must commit acts of brutal terrorism and guerrilla warfare, and struggle over whether what they’re doing is really for the best.
The script by Chicago-based playwright Shannon O’Neill (co-artistic director of Factory) is inspired by the real-life story of Dolours Price and Marian Price, sisters who joined the Provisional IRA in the early seventies. The play begins in 1984, when a researcher asks the older Kelly sister, Fianna (Amber Washington) to tell their story. The younger sister, Regan (Brittney Brown), keeps her silence.
Directed by Spenser Davis, this is a rough, intimate play, set in a tiny seventy-seat storefront theater. The clever set by Manuel Ortiz represents both interiors and exteriors—dark red brick walls decorated with political handbills, dishes for tea, stacked munitions and medical supplies, and even a mural reminiscent of the famous resistance murals in Derry’s Catholic quarter. Hard-driving Irish music (artists include L.A. band Flogging Molly) plays during scene changes. Brilliant sound and light effects from Hannah Foerschler and Benjamin Carne (respectively) work together to depict bombs, a kidnapping by truck, and distant gunfire.
“The Kelly Girls” is an interesting show, with strong performances, but also a few distracting weaknesses.
One problem is that some cast members have more convincing Irish accents than others. The first act can be oddly ordered—for example, the girls and their mother Dierdre (a fiery and funny Anne Sheridan Smith) encounter a roadblock and learn that a bomb has struck their father’s Belfast tavern. Then we see the flash of the bomb, and the girls sinking to their knees in grief. The emotional impact is blunted by momentary confusion—why is the bomb going off now, when we know that the bomb already went off?
There’s a charming flashback scene at the start of the second act when we learn that the girls’ parents trained them in gun repair and marksmanship; it would have been better to have it earlier. Then we’d have gotten more of the character of “Da” (played with warmth and wit by Ben Veatch) before his death, and more information about the girls’ proficiency in arms. There are also some patches of “history speak”—where characters sound like they’re stating facts from a book rather talking like human beings.
The second act is much tighter and carries a strong emotional punch, particularly involving the assassination of a female informant (Mandy Walsh), and in the prison scenes. After their arrest for bombings in London, the girls and their fellow warriors go on a hunger strike, and are subject to brutal force-feeding. Washington and Brown show the emotional bond between the sisters, as well as their differing beliefs about the fight.
Gerry Sullivan, a Provisional IRA member later prominent in the political party Sinn Fein, is one of the play’s best characters. He is apparently based on real-life Irish political figure Gerry Adams, who has denied Provisional IRA involvement. As played by Rob Koon in one of the show’s best performances, Sullivan is charming and avuncular when he makes speeches on Belfast streets, but alarming and sinister as a military leader, coldly ordering death. Sullivan is the kind of hero who later gets his image on postage stamps—while others die and never see the promised victory.
“The Kelly Girls” at Factory Theater, 1623 West Howard, (312)275-5757, thefactorytheater.com. Through April 1.