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Philadelphia, Here I Come!

Under Ciarán O'Reilly's lively and sensitive direction, this Brian Friel play is receiving a well-nigh perfect Irish Rep production logo
James Kennedy and Michael FitzGerald
in Philadelphia, Here I Come!
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! isn't a perfect play. In the third act, Friel allows himself to wax sentimental for a few brief moments as he checks out the misgivings that Gareth O'Donnell has during the 24 hours before he quits his Ballybeg hometown for an aunt's stateside address and a hotel job. During this long act -- there's only one intermission in the Irish Repertory Theatre's revival instead of the customary two -- Friel also signals that he's reached a denouement at least twice before truly reaching it.

On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with introducing characters late in the play, as he does with four of them. This development only seems odd because, nowadays, not many playwrights are bold enough to indulge the extravagance; bottom-line-watching producers regularly impose inhospitable budgetary limitations. Few contemporary playwrights would even entertain the notion of including 14 characters in a straight play, unless actors could easily double in several roles. (Check out Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning works from recent years and you'll notice that a list of more than eight or nine dramatis personae has become a no-no.)

But large casts were still the norm in 1964 when the Irish dramatist wrote Philadelphia, Here I Come!, which -- the above objections aside -- is almost perfect. And under Ciarán O'Reilly's lively and sensitive direction, the play is receiving a well-nigh perfect production. (The piece was first seen in Manhattan in 1966 and revived by the Roundabout in 1994.) What makes Friel's work a somber delight is the subtle handling of his characters' moods, the sly manner in which he arranges and rearranges their interactions. He seemingly favors one character's viewpoint now and another's minutes later, shifting seamlessly from comedy to drama and back again -- or, more accurately, braiding both, which only masters are able to do. The prolific Friel (Faith Healer, Translations, Aristocrats, Dancing at Lughnasa) handily fits that description.

The primary conceit here is that Gareth O'Donnell is played by two actors; the public Gareth in this incarnation is Michael FitzGerald and the private Gareth is James Kennedy. The idea is the time-tested one about our not always explicitly stating what we're thinking or, more to the point, feeling. This is true for a number of the characters, including Gareth's father, S. B. O'Donnell (Edwin C. Owens). In a series of painfully reticent scenes, Friel demonstrates that Gareth and Dad don't know how to vouchsafe their confused feelings to one another. He also brings on aunt Lizzie Sweeney (Helena Carroll) and drinking buddy Con Sweeney (John Leighton), who blather colorfully before blaring their deeper thoughts. And he repeatedly sends in housekeeper Madge (Paddy Croft), who has no trouble at all speaking her mind.

In sequence after sequence, Friel shows Gareth, whose unexpressed thoughts run toward the sarcastic and cynical, failing to break through to his father. Many of their issues revolve around the problems arising from Gareth's mother having been significantly younger than his father and having died only three days after giving birth to her son. In one of the play's most touching sequences, Gareth tries to get his dad to recall a fishing trip they once took, during which the pair of them were happy. In other scenes -- some of which are flashbacks -- family and friends arrive to offer compelling reasons for Gareth to follow through on his decision or, just as convincingly, not to follow through.

Onto David Raphel's kitchen-and-bedroom set, lit by Brian Nason, O'Reilly brings 14 superlative actors garbed in David Toser's appropriately drab costumes. The incipiently beefy FitzGerald is ebullient, confused, angry, and callow on demand. As the private Gareth, the lean and hungry Kennedy leaps about the stage -- enthralling affecting multiple voices, clicking his heels in the air, and snarking in everyone's ear.

The flaunting of acting expertise continues with Croft as an astringent but lovable Madge and Owens as a father who can't find the words to declare his love for the son he had late in life. Then there's the plump Carroll as Aunt Lizzie, one of those parts that actors would kill for; her portrayal of a gabby and forgetful woman who's still mourning a lost sister and an abandoned country is worth the admission price. Praise is also due Leighton as the boastful Con Sweeney, James A. Stephens as an acerbic teacher who might have married Gareth's mother had he spoken up sooner, Leo Leyden as a canon who's losing it, Tessa Klein as the girl who slipped through Gareth's fingers, Gil Rogers as her imperious father, Joe Berlangero as Con's sycophantic booster, and Darren Connelly as another pal with a lack of tact. The ironic triumph of Philadelphia, Here I Come! is how stunningly it communicates the damage inherent in failed familial communications.

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