Philadelphia, Here I Come!
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
July 19, 2005
(Let me take this moment to tell you, Gentle Skimmer, that I enthusiastically recommend the following production, even if my initial two paragraphs do not seem to bear that out.)
I found the first scene of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Brian Friel’s 1964 play Philadelphia, Here I Come! to be a little off-putting. Set in small-village-Ireland, the play documents 25-year-old Gareth O’Donnell’s last night at home before leaving for America—for good. Friel employs the conceit of having two Gareths: the Public (Michael FitzGerald), who gallops about the stage in eager anticipation of his departure; and the Private (James Kennedy), who is Gareth’s unspoken thoughts, his wild imagination, his constant companion, and his faithful audience.
Unfamiliar as I was with the classic play, I couldn’t pinpoint if it was the writing, the direction, or an indigenous style of performance to which I was woefully underexposed that I found so grating. Why is Friel spending so much stage-time on the dynamic but seemingly inconsequential fantasy life of his protagonist? Why are these two actors trying so hard and/or why has director Ciaran O’Reilly not tamed them?
It took me a scene or two to realize that everyone involved in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Philadelphia, Here I Come! (not to mention the playwright himself) knows exactly what they’re doing. As the play progresses and we see Gareth interact for what may be the final time with his housekeeper, his best mates, and most significantly, his father, we begin to understand why he is making such a big deal of this major life-choice—because no one else is.
Madge is concerned with the tea, the mess in the kitchen, and visiting a neighbor who might name her new baby “Madge.” Ned, Tom, and Joe are preoccupied with the usual (skirt-chasing, pint-pursuing) and not with musing on how deeply they’ll miss the good times Gareth and they had together. And aside from discreet bouts of insomnia during the preceding few evenings, his widowed father, S.B. O’Donnell takes his one cup of tea and plays his checkers, betraying no sense of loss at his son’s decision to move abroad.
Friel shows us in flashback a few events that helped solidify Gareth’s resolve to move to the U.S. The most pivotal of these is also one of the very best scenes in O’Reilly’s revival: Lizzy, the sister of Gareth’s late mother, has arrived from Philadelphia with her husband to visit their homeland. Lizzy (conjured here by the exquisite Helena Carroll) is a dotty, drunk, motherly figure whose whimsical whiskey-soaked memories culminate in a desperate plea for her nephew (a perfect stranger) to move to Philadelphia and join their (childless) family.
Carroll, however, is not the only reason to see this excellent production (though she may be reason enough). The entire ensemble, composed and conducted by O’Reilly, is quite good, but I will go ahead and point out a few other outstanding performers: Paddy Croft’s Madge is deeply affecting as the quiet old maid who is plenty aware of the goings-on (or lack thereof) between Gareth and his father, but wise enough to stay out of it. FitzGerald plays his scenes with Edwin C. Owens (as Gareth’s emotionally opaque father) with an almost romantic fervor, which makes the interaction, from both ends, the very essence of heartbreaking.
Philadelphia, Here I Come! chronicles a young man’s pursuit of feeling important: from the showman to the soliloquist, who must learn how to be alone. To artists or any persons who have had to go far from home to find recognition and appreciation, Friel’s tale is uncomfortably familiar. And indeed, as directed by O’Reilly and enacted by FitzGerald, the play is pitch-perfect.