Review: At the Factory Theater, The Kelly Girls Become IRA Warriors During the Troubles in Northern Ireland

Fianna and Regan Kelly are The Kelly Girls, teenagers living in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the 1960s. But don’t confuse them with the "Derry Girls," who are happily obsessed with teenaged issues such as boys and parties, while the Troubles rage around them, until their Netflix series ends with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The Kelly Girls are sharpshooters and fiery activists, committed to carrying on the cause of a united Ireland. They’re inspired and coached by their parents, Shane (Ben Veatch) and Dierdre (Anne Sheridan Smith), longtime IRA members. Shannon O’Neill’s world premiere play, The Kelly Girls, now on stage at the Factory Theater, is inspired by the real-life story of two other sisters who committed their lives to that fight.

Director Spenser Davis uses the small and spare Factory Theater stage to advantage, as it turns from the Kelly family kitchen to an operations center for The Unknowns, the branch of the Provos (Provisional IRA) that the older sister, Fianna (Amber Washington), joins, after demonstrating her prowess in operating a firearm. (The IRA split into factions in 1969-70; the Provisional IRA became the more active paramilitary branch.)  Later Regan (Brittney Brown) the sharpshooter of the family, joins too. The sisters participate in the kidnapping and execution of a young Belfast widow with 10 children, who was identified as a tout (informer) for passing IRA secrets to the British. The stage becomes the scene of a London bombing, and then an English prison, where Fianna and Regan carry on a devastating hunger strike. (The men are imprisoned in Long Kesh, an infamous British prison where they carry on a hunger strike as well as other acts of protest.)  Fianna and Regan are released from prison on humanitarian grounds. 

The Kelly family. Clockwise from bottom left, Ben Veatch, Brittney Brown, Anne Sheridan Smith and Amber Washington. Photo by Candice Conner.

The Provos and other IRA members are inspired by the speeches of Gerry Sullivan (an obvious stand-in for the real Gerry Adams), played by veteran Chicago actor Rob Koon. Washington and Brown are both believable as the sisters and committed Provo members; their mom, Deirdre, is a firebrand for the original IRA too, storing weapons in their home to deliver as needed. 

The Unknowns are led by Brendan (Elliott Sagay), who represents his real-life counterpart, Brendan Hughes (known as The Dark, because of his dark hair and complexion). The other members of the crew are Oscar (Vic Kuligoski) and Denny (Joshua Servantes). 

Actually, several of the characters are named inconsistently – in the theater’s apparently erratic effort to disguise the real-life participants. Gerry Sullivan is identified as Gerry Adams on the theater’s promo postcard. Brendan is identified as Brendan Rohan on the website and Brendan Hughes in the theater’s press release. Hugh, another member of the Unknowns (played by Patrick Blashill), is identified as Hugh Feeney (the real-life IRA partisan) in one place and Hugh Track in another. 

The story of the Kelly Girls is a complex one and Davis’ direction keeps the action moving rather quickly in this 100-minute production. So quickly, in fact, that you might miss something, especially if you’re not familiar with this period of Irish history. The theater could help the audience follow the action with an explainer or Troubles timeline on lobby displays or in their program (which is only available online, making it impossible to view during the performance). It would also be helpful to identify the dates in which scenes take place, to help us follow the passage of time from 1968 into the 1980s.

The Kelly Girls in real life were the Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, whose life followed the same path of protests, bombings, kidnapping and other acts of guerrilla warfare portrayed by O’Neill. They were also imprisoned and carried on a hunger strike. The playwright’s program notes observe that her research on the two sisters indicated that “their once unified belief system diverged throughout its course”—and she wanted to explore their relationship more deeply. That element of the Kelly sisters’ relationship is expressed near the end of the play—in the 1980s—as they disagree about providing information for a research project. 

The play begins with Fianna’s initial conversation with a Boston College researcher developing the Belfast Project, a history of the Troubles; interview snippets are woven throughout the play. Other IRA participants also were interviewed. The contractual provision for each was that none of these papers were to be released until after each individual’s death. The interview records, both transcripts and recordings, were stored under tight surveillance in a secure room at the Burns Library at Boston College. The files were claimed by a pair of Belfast detectives in 2013, for use in a criminal proceeding. 

For more information on the Price sisters, their Provisional IRA activity and the ongoing war for unification of Ireland, known as the Troubles, a recent award-winning nonfiction work is a highly readable resource. The 2019 book is Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe, an American  journalist and historian. The book won the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and was named one of the top 10 books of 2019 by major newspapers. For a fictional look at the time of the Troubles, I suggest the novel Milkman by Anna Burns. Both books won the George Orwell Prize for political writing. Also see my essay on art and politics and the Troubles, which includes brief reviews of books, films and theater works.

The Kelly Girls continues at the Factory Theater, 1623 W. Howard St. (on the Chicago side of Howard Street), through April 1. Tickets are $25 for performances Friday-Sunday, with Thursday performances on March 23 and 30. The theater requires proof of vaccination for entry; masks are recommended but not required. 

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.