Four people are shown seated around a round wooden table. At lower left is a middle-aged man with dark hair, wearing a white shirt and brown sweater vest. At upper left is a younger woman with dark hair, wearing a green school uniform. At upper right is a middle-aged woman in a gray sweater, wearing a cross necklace. At lower right is another young woman with dark braided hair, wearing a top with black-and-white vertical stripes. White bowls with spoons are in front of each of them, and a black stewpot is in the center of the table.
Clockwise from lower left: Ben Veatch, Brittney Brown, Anne Sheridan Smith, and Amber Washington in The Kelly Girls at Factory Theater Credit: Candice Conner, Oomphotography

When it comes to Factory Theater, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Shannon O’Neill’s play The Kelly Girls, about two sisters in Northern Ireland, would be close in tone and spirit to the endearing Northern Irish comedy series Derry Girls. After all, Factory has been providing high-spirited pastiches/parodies that both satirize and celebrate the best and worst of contemporary culture—often with a sly sardonic acumen underneath the wackiness—for many years.

But they occasionally take a darker road, and that’s definitely the case with O’Neill’s drama about a Catholic family in Belfast for whom rebellion (or terrorism, depending upon whose POV you use) is in the blood. Based to some extent on the real-life Price sisters, who went to prison in the 1970s for their actions with the Provisional IRA (they were involved in the bombing of Old Bailey in London), The Kelly Girls asks familiar questions about violence, vengeance, and justice in pursuit of political freedom and civil rights. 

The Kelly Girls
Through 4/1: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Thu 3/23 and 3/30 8 PM; Sun 3/12 touch tour and audio description (touch tour 2 PM); Factory Theater, 1623 W. Howard, 312-275-5757,, $25 (student/senior $18)

But in both O’Neill’s script and Spenser Davis’s staging, there is also a strong through line of family ties, which adds even more gray areas to a story that is already rife with contradictions and conundrums. And I mean that in a good way: O’Neill lets the messiness of these characters and their choices breathe, asking us to put ourselves in their place and time. 

That would be the time of the “the Troubles,” in the late 1960s, when Catholic citizens of Northern Ireland faced harsh crackdowns as they protested for civil rights and independence. Paramilitaries on both the Catholic and Protestant sides (the latter of course supported by the police and the British army) battled on the streets and targeted politicians and others for violent retribution.

As O’Neill told Reader contributor Jack Helbig, she became interested in the story of the Price sisters when a friend sent her an article in 2013 about Dolours Price. Dolours, the eldest of the two sisters, was married to Irish actor Stephen Rea for 20 years. She died in January of 2013; the official coroner’s verdict was  “death by misadventure” (she’d mixed sedative and antidepressant medication).

Interviews that Dolours had given several years earlier to Boston College on the condition that they not be released until after her death were subsequently (after a legal battle with the college) made available to authorities in Northern Ireland. They suggested that Price knew about the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten who was kidnapped and killed by the Provisional IRA for allegedly being an informant for the British. (McConville’s body wasn’t found until 2003; a 2006 report from the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman showed “no evidence” that she had ever been an informer.) 

Price also claimed that Sinn Féin politician Gerry Adams ordered her to participate in the murder. (Adams has denied the allegation, and has also denied ever being in the IRA.) There have also been allegations over the years that the person who actually pulled the trigger on McConville was Marian Price, Dolours’s younger sister (who is still alive). Marian denies that she was the triggerwoman.

A fictionalized version of the McConville story is the central defining incident in O’Neill’s play, but first she carefully builds up the world around the Kelly girls that leads them to that horrific event.

O’Neill uses the Boston College interviews as the framework for going back and forth in time with the sisters and their history with the IRA. Eldest daughter Fianna (Amber Washington) and her younger sister, Regan (Brittney Brown) already know how to clean weapons for the Official IRA, thanks to their parents, Shane (Ben Veatch) and Dierdre (Anne Sheridan Smith). The Official IRA and the Provisional (or “Provos”) split in 1969, with the latter urging more direct paramilitary attacks in the war for independence from Great Britain. (You might need to do a quick refresher course for yourself before the show if the ins and outs of the history of Irish independence movements aren’t terribly familiar to you, though missing a few references won’t throw you off the plot entirely.)

Shane is killed when his pub is bombed, and Fianna is recruited by the Provos. It’s clear that Dierdre is even more radical than her late husband. She walks with a limp from what we presume is a bullet or some other injury attained in the line of duty in an earlier time, and she has no problem pulling a gun on a Protestant shop owner who won’t sell solvent to her. Yet when Regan joins her sister in the Provos, Dierdre feels the anguish of any mother who realizes that her children have chosen a dangerous path. Worse yet, she knows that they chose it because of her—no matter that she wanted them to go to college and prepare for a wholly different life.

There are moments of levity in the story, particularly with the banter among the Kelly girls and the men in their Provo unit, which inevitably goes into gallow humor from time to time. (During one operation, when they’re all checking in with what they’re doing, one of the men says, “Just planting a bomb underneath the car. Like you do.”) A scene where Fianna and her gang rob a bank dressed as nuns is based on real robberies Dolours and her Provo pals participated in while dressed in habits.

The Kelly girls and their comrades operate under the guidance of Hugh, played by the excellent Patrick Blashill with revolutionary passion that bleeds over into anguish as their missions become even more fraught, both morally and in terms of actual cost to their own lives. Rob Koon plays the Adams stand-in (here called “Gerry Sullivan”) with the fervor and narcissism of the True Believer who seems willing to be flexible when it’s time to think of his own future. 

But it’s ultimately a story of how these two sisters found themselves (or placed themselves: no need to deny them agency) in a cascading series of events that ends with them facing the horrors of force-feeding as both sisters participate in a hunger strike in England, demanding a return to an Irish prison after their convictions in the Old Bailey bombing. Along the way, we see the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” massacre of peaceful marchers by the British army, which proves to be a radicalizing event for Regan in particular.

The light design by Benjamin Carne and sound by Hannah Foerschler work well at maximizing a sense of horror with minimal effects in the small Factory space.  Manny Ortiz’s set design, with its brick walls covered with graffiti and posters, suggests a gritty Belfast street, with piles of munitions boxes at one side capturing the Provo hideout.

At the end, Washington’s Fianna (who has fallen out with her sister over her decision to do the Boston College interviews) looks out at us and asks, “What would you do?” That answer of course remains with each of us to decide. Where does resistance turn into terrorism? How do you decide who is “fair game” in that world? The Kelly Girls largely succeeds at helping us see the mix of family loyalty, political radicalization, and misplaced righteousness that led these two women to end up on a dark road, where another woman pleads in vain for her life and her own children’s futures.