Reviews

Philadelphia, Here I Come ****

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 6, 2024: The third in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s current season of four Brian Friel (1929-2015) revivals (following Translations and Aristocrats and preceding Molly Sweeney) is Philadelphia, Here I Come, which premiered in 1964 at the Dublin Theatre Festival, was a 1964 hit at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre, moved on to London in 1967, and enjoyed many subsequent revivals elsewhere. Those include the Irish Rep, which first did it in 1990, did it again in 2005, and now visits it once more in this heartfelt rendering. 

A.J. Shively and David McElwee.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 6, 2024: The third in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s current season of four Brian Friel (1929-2015) revivals (following Translations and Aristocrats and preceding Molly Sweeney) is Philadelphia, Here I Come, which premiered in 1964 at the Dublin Theatre Festival, was a 1964 hit at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre, moved on to London in 1967, and enjoyed many subsequent revivals elsewhere. Those include the Irish Rep, which first did it in 1990, did it again in 2005, and now visits it once more in this heartfelt rendering. 

Although there are real Irish villages called Ballybeg, the Donegal County one in Philadelphia, Here I Come (and other Friel plays.) is fictional, intended to exemplify the stultifying, claustrophobic atmosphere of small-town Irish life, where, as in the play, pious Catholic families gather daily at home to say the rosary. Which is why, when the play begins, its 25-year-old hero, Gar(eth) O’Donnell, is so effusively jubilant about his imminent departure for the United States, scheduled for the following morning. He dances a jig around his home, singing “Philadelphia, Here I Come,” as if he’d just won the lottery. It’s 1962 and he’s dreaming of American drive-in movie theatres, hamburgers, cokes, and blueberry pies. As the play proceeds, Gar’s ebullience gradually morphs into ambivalence.

Ciarán O’Reilly and Ciaran Byrne.

Plot-wise, not much happens in Philadelphia, Here I Come, a character-driven work, largely devoid of familiar Irish political overtones. At two hours and 15 minutes (with one intermission), it doesn’t entirely escape loquaciousness, a common flaw among verbally gifted Irish playwrights. What was once a structural innovation—the use of two actors to play separate aspects of its leading character—although not as widespread as seeing different actors playing the same role on stage together at various ages (Water for ElephantsThe NotebookThe Who’s Tommy, etc.), is no longer surprising.

Friel gives us the constrained Public Gar (David McElwee, convincingly sincere) and the showier Private Gar (A.J. Shively, vivaciously alive). The former is the awkwardly diffident, insecure fellow everyone sees and interacts with, the latter his inner self, cynical and more openly expressive of Gar’s true feelings, which he often urges Public Gar to act upon. The interchanges (including an Irish dancing sequence) between the two within the otherwise straightforwardly realistic play heighten the dramatic atmosphere considerably and inspire much of its humor. 

Clare O’Malley and Ciaran Byrne.

Like his son, Gar’s elderly dad, S.B. “Screwballs” O’Donell (a beautifully restrained Ciarán O’Reilly, who directed), a respectable local shopkeeper, is similarly disinclined to share his emotions, treating his son more as an employee than as his flesh and blood. The play tests the nature of the strained emotional bond between father and son at a moment about which each feels deeply but can’t bring themselves to bond over. Friel delicately manipulates their laconic interplay to reveal the mutual difficulty they have in communicating, while reminding us of how the situation will nonetheless remain embedded in their memories long after Gar’s plane has departed.

Memory, in fact, often rendered as the word “mind,” comprises much of the play, as Gar, whose mother died three days after he was born, recalls how his life has come to this pass. This includes how he let Katie Doogan (Clare O’Malley, appealing), the beautiful girl he loved, slip through his fingers when he was incapable of asking her upper-class, condescending father (Byrne, again), a senator, for her hand. It also explains how a childless sister of Gar’s mother, the flashily dressed, garrulous Aunt Lizzy (a spirited Deirdre Madigan), visited Ballybeg from the US accompanied by her husband, Uncle Con (Patrick Fitzgerald) and a rich friend, Ben (Peter Cormican) to invite him to live with her in Philadelphia, where she’d secured a hotel job for him.

David McElwee, A.J. Shively, Deirdre Madigan, and Patrick Fitzgerald.

Helping provide local color is Canon O’Byrne (Ciaran Byrne, appropriately pinched), who stops by regularly to play drafts with S.B. but has nary a word of enlightenment to offer his parishioners. There’s also Master Boyle (Fitzgerald again), a shabby old poet, once Gar’s teacher, visiting to offer Gar a a parting gift of poems. Most importantly, though, is the longsuffering, live-in domestic, Madge (Irish Rep old-timer Terry Donnelly, excellent as usual), who serves the O’Donnells as both surrogate wife and mother, the glue that holds the household together. 

Important scenes that help disclose Gar’s unhappiness with his circumstances include one in which his loutish, womanizing, boozing, immature friends, Tom (Tim Palmer), Ned (James Russell), and Joe (Emmet Earl Smith), come to say goodbye. Even more fraught is that in which Katie, now married to a doctor, also arrives to bid Gar farewell.

Tim Palmer, James Russell, David McElwee, A.J. Shively, and Emmet Earl Smith.

This is just after Private Gar has told Public Gar that, however badly he feels toward Ballybeg, his memories will one day be altered by time: “No one will ever know or understand the fun there was; for there was fun and there was laughing … foolish, silly fun and foolish, silly laughing; but what it was all about you can’t remember, can you? Just the memory of it …that’s all you have now … just the memory; and even now, even so soon, it is being distilled of all its coarseness; and what’s left is going to be precious, precious gold . . .” But when Katie enters, Gar’s irritation at his own fallibility is such that he can’t resist unloading on her, declaring his bitterness about the town and why he must leave it. When the lights finally dim, though, that feeling is not quite so imperative.

O’Reilly’s direction (he also staged the 2005 production) is impeccable, the acting—as usual at this venue—carries the air of Irish authenticity, Irish Rep design regulars Charlie Corcoran and Michael Gottlieb provide their usual scenic and lighting magic, respectively, on the Rep’s tiny stage, as do Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staub with their sound design. Those fond of Brian Friel’s plays will find many good reasons here to sing out, Irish Repertory, here I come!

Philadelphia, Here I Come ****
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd Street, NYC
Through May 5, 2024
Photography: Jeremy Daniel

Patrick Fitzgerald, Deirdre Madigan, and Peter Cormican.