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Nobody knows the Troubles they’ve seen

There are not many names more Irish than Shannon O’Neill. “I’m like the John Smith of Ireland,” O’Neill quips. So it only makes sense that the sixth-generation Irish American (whose people fled the Emerald Isle in the 1840s during the potato famine) “fell in love with being Irish at a very early age.” 

As a kid she got books about Ireland, filled with stories and pictures of the verdant landscape and its many ancient artifacts—the towers and crumbling walls, the abandoned farms, the Cliffs of Moher, the Blarney Stone, the sweet winding River Shannon. In college she hung images of Ireland from an outdated calendar by her dorm room bed, turning them 90 degrees vertically so that when she put her head on her pillow she could gaze at “these gorgeous landscapes” while she fell asleep.

The Kelly Girls
Through 4/1: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Thu 3/23 and 3/30 8 PM; Factory Theater, 1623 W. Howard, 312-275-5757, thefactorytheater.com, $25

The latest play by the Chicago-based playwright (and co-artistic director of the Factory Theater) is about Ireland, specifically a pair of sisters who become deeply enmeshed in the dark, violent world of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. It’s inspired by the real-life story of Dolours and Marian Price, who both joined the Provisional IRA in the early 70s.

O’Neill became interested in the Price sisters in 2013 when “a friend texted me an article about Dolours Price.” Dolours notoriously was a member of an elite group within the IRA called “The Unknowns,” which conducted clandestine operations, including the kidnapping and killing of people accused of being traitors to the cause. (Dolours revealed her involvement in interviews that were not published until her death in January 2013.) O’Neill admits, “[Dolours’s] story was fascinating to me.” O’Neill was also interested in the relationship between the sisters and how it “could coexist amongst this backdrop of conflict.”

O’Neill was not a child of conflict. She grew up in the peaceful college town of Carbondale, Illinois. She came to Chicago to study at Columbia College in the 1990s and never went back. “I really liked the velocity of Chicago. I liked taking the el everywhere and exploring.” While she was at Columbia, she met actors associated with the Factory Theater and started hanging with them. She was eventually asked to fill in when actors could not do a show. In 2004 she was invited to become an ensemble member of The Factory.  

The Kelly Girls is the third play O’Neill has written for the theater. Her first was 2010’s Jenny and Jenni, a comedy about a pair of women who may or may not have been the actual inventors of the kind of dance workouts popularized by Jane Fonda. “It was a very kind of loving story about their challenges and their brink of fame.”

Her second play was a serious drama, 2019’s May the Road Rise Up, based on the story of Sean Smith and Lee Smith. Sean, at ten, accidentally killed his eight-year-old sister, Lee, shooting her with a gun they found hidden in their parents’ dresser. Sean did not know the gun was loaded when he pulled the trigger.

O’Neill heard about the Smith family tragedy on an episode of StoryCorps on NPR’s Morning Edition and could not get Sean and Lee’s story out of her head. “How did this accident affect Sean?” she wondered. “How could his family move on from such a tragedy? How does a family deal with their guilt?” O’Neill also asked, “Who do they blame? How do you blame a kid?” She set her play ten years after the shooting to answer these questions. May the Road Rise Up received a non-Equity Jeff Award nomination for best new work.

O’Neill had started working on The Kelly Girls at the same time as May the Road Rise Up. But May the Road Rise Up came more quickly. O’Neill says all of her plays “have a life of their own.” And they unfold at their own paces. O’Neill had to push pause on The Kelly Girls to finish work on May the Road Rise Up. But it did not remain long on the back burner. When work was completed on May the Road Rise Up, she went back to The Kelly Girls

As in May the Road Rise Up, O’Neill decided to diverge from the facts of the actual case—in part because some of the people involved in the Price sisters’ stories are still alive. But fictionalizing the story also freed her from the facts and gave her freedom to explore how the violence of the Troubles “seep[s] into their family dynamic.” 

“We begin in 1967, and we end in 1980. It is a bit of a journey in terms of their lives. So you see a little bit of their lives before joining the IRA. You see their family dynamic.”

“And it’s a really tricky line. [The Kelly Girls is] not a historical drama. I’ve used my creative license. But I’ve tried to keep the milestones for some of these really significant happenings and moments throughout.”

Just as it did in May the Road Rise Up, O’Neill found that the real-life story provided a springboard for dramatically compelling questions.

“How does a family who’s engrossed in IRA activities talk at dinner time? What is their conversation about? Did they talk about politics? With the whirling violence that’s happening around them in Northern Ireland, how can you ignore it? What does [the violence] do psychologically to you as an individual? And also where do your beliefs start to change and it becomes unclear what you’re fighting for?”

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