Today’s Ireland—affluent, high-tech, European-minded—would have been virtually unthinkable back in the mid 1960s, when Brian Friel wrote his breakthrough play, Philadelphia, Here I Come! Revolving around Gar O’Donnell, a young man packing for America, the story depicts an Ireland as provincial as it is unprosperous—a place anyone with big dreams should flee, no matter how wrenching the parting.
How does the play hold up? Fairly well in Ciarán O’Reilly’s sensitive if uneven production at the Irish Rep. The dramatic context has changed (Irish immigrants in Philly are now returning to Ireland for better wages and living conditions), but the emotional knot remains—compellingly—the same.
A grown son, afraid to make the leap into an independent (and alien) future, longs for what his father can’t give—tenderness, reassurance, a sense of place in the world. Judgmental types will find Dad lacking, his reticence and withholding proof of a stunted soul. But how can you offer what you yourself have scarcely known?
A widower, S.B. O’Donnell (unaffectionately called Screwballs by his son, Gar) relies on habit to get him through the day—his clockwork routine at the dry-goods store he owns, evening prayers with housekeeper Madge, checkers with the conversationally limited priest. Gar has little patience for this petty, passionless man. What’s more, he resents the paltry salary his father pays him at the store, the funereal pall he casts over the house, and the general lack of encouragement he gives him. Leaving would be a cinch for Gar, if only his heart weren’t so full of abject sympathy.
In one of his more daring nonrealistic strokes, Friel splits his protagonist in two: Private and Public Gar occupy the O’Donnell household set side by side, voicing their distinctive feelings about Ballybeg, the Donegal backwater that offers little possibility for anyone of restless ambition. But—this is Ireland, after all—a sentimental attachment runs deep. Gar is haunted by love for the mother he never knew; by his ex-girlfriend Kate, whose father frowns on his lowly prospects; and by his surrogate mother Madge, a “brick,” whose steady goodness and devotion turn him uncharacteristically mawkish.
Friel has always held that Philadelphia isn’t about emigration but rather the unspoken sorrow and solidarity of fathers and sons. Though it’s important to convey the oppressive small-town Irish reality, with its dreary weather, bleak economy, and suffocating morality (qualities only cartoonishly sketched in O’Reilly’s staging), the play focuses on the store of conflicted feeling climaxing in Gar’s heart as he prepares his goodbyes.
The production is blessed, then, in its casting of Michael FitzGerald in the role of Public Gar, a charmingly galumphing presence with flushed cheeks and a sense of innocence even when his character confesses to being a sex maniac in his mind. FitzGerald lends palpable urgency to the character’s stalemate with his father (well played by Edwin C. Owens), whose dour facade reveals hairline cracks of paternal guilt and concern as departure grows nearer.
In perhaps the play’s most challenging role, James Kennedy plays Private Gar, impishly (perhaps a tad too much so) bringing to life not just the forbidden thoughts but the mental riffs and reveries of a character whose imagination outstrips his adult experience.
The supporting performances are a mixed bag, with a few sharp portraits somewhat undermined by O’Reilly’s scenic bungling (blocking and dialogue rhythm are not his strong suits). Cutting memorable figures are Helena Carroll as Gar’s blowsy, Scotch-slinging Aunt Lizzy (from whom Gar receives his invitation to move to Philadelphia) and Paddy Croft as stalwart Madge.
Private Gar’s description of America as “a profane, irreligious, pagan country of gross materialism” has been co-opted by some to describe contemporary Ireland. No matter: Friel’s tragicomic storytelling journeys beyond history’s ups and downs to the disappointment and regret of family love.