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I often find myself trying to enter normal mode inside the repl using escape, but that actually unfocuses the repl and returns focus to the editor

Is there a solution for this?

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This is problematic unfortunately, there's actually a document in the wiki about this: https://github.com/cursive-ide/cursive/wiki/IdeaVim-issues. I don't use IdeaVim myself but I've collected some tips from users who have written to me there. There's also this page which you might find interesting: https://github.com/cursive-ide/cursive/wiki/Mapping-IdeaVim-actions-to-Cursive-actions.

Following up on this, in 2019.3 you can actually configure the behaviour of Escape. The Focus Editor action is now the one that returns to the editor from a toolwindow, so you can customise the keybinding for that action to something other than Escape. I haven't tried this, so I'd be very interested to know if it works.