Philadelphia, Here I Come! – Buoyant and Tender

1962. Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland. It’s the night before the public Gar, Gareth O’Donnell (David McElwee), leaves for a new life in Philadelphia. Tortured uncertainty has conjured private Gar (A.J. Shively), an alter ego who expresses what Gareth cannot; observes, cheers, goads, and derides the hero. “One cannot look at one’s alter ego,” Friel wrote. Thus, the two never make eye contact or, despite clever proximity, touch.

Bounding in singing “Philadelphia Here I Come” to the tune of “California Here I Come,” Public Gar seems exultant. Supporting the impression, private Gar reminds the young man, “You’re free of him and the stinkin’ bloody shop.” He’s referring to public Gar’s dour, uncommunicative father, S.B. (Ciarán O`Reilly), called “boss” by Madge and secretly nicknamed “Screwballs” by private Gar. Only in a late scene do we get a glimpse of his Da’s unspoken love – couched in remembrance that may never have occurred.

Ciarán O`Reilly (Screwballs), Madge (Terry Donnelly)

Also the co-founder and co-artistic director of Irish Rep, it’s been some time since we’ve seen O’Reilly act. He so immerses himself in this understated, yet detailed portrayal, one sees the taciturn old man not the garrulous artist. I literally didn’t recognize him at first.

Gar has spent his life with nose pressed against the glass of his father’s reticence, fruitlessly waiting for any sign he’s loved or appreciated. Tea and supper never deviate from silent routine, but for the rare work-related question. S.B.’s teeth come out, his hat is removed and replaced. Private Gar assumes the persona of affected, fashion news to describe ordinary apparel and mockingly anticipates word for word what will be said during successive awkward meals.

The two Gars jump, mug, and dance. Private Gar faux-introduces public Gar in fantasized roles of success. The latter plays at being Elvis Presley and an American cowboy riding his suitcase. (Terrific.) An old newspaper recalls his parents’ meeting and wedding – why, he wonders, did she marry him? In turn, this brings to mind public Gar’s ex-fiancé, Katie Doogan (a sympathetic Clare O’Malley), who resignedly married another when public Gar couldn’t get the words out to ask for her hand. Frustrated, we watch in flashback. Like father, like son? Regret is rife.

A.J. Shively (private Gar), David McElwee (public Gar)

Housekeeper/surrogate mother Madge (Terry Donnelly) brings public Gar rope to tie a cardboard suitcase. His mum died when he was a baby. Wry and resolute, she’s the only caring adult in his orbit except, occasionally, schoolmaster Boyle (Patrick Fitzgerald). Of Philadelphia (America?) Boyle says, “I gather it’s a vast, restless place that doesn’t give a damn about the past.” (‘Long the Irish attitude and not unastute.) There’s also a flashback of expatriates Aunt Lizzy (Diedre Madigan) and uncle Con’s (Patrick Fitzgerald) offer to house and find him a hotel job in Philadelphia.

Donnelly, a solid regular at Irish Rep, is a wellspring of small, realistic, endearing moments. Movement is that of Madge. The actor’s gaze and laughs are priceless. Diedre Madigan’s brassy, overbearing Lizzy wears her heart on her sleeve. Her character arrives amusing and familiar with a touch of poignancy.

Having been secretly invited by Madge, the “boys” arrive with beer to send their friend off. Tom (Tim Palmer), Ned (James Russell), and Joe (Emmet Earl Smith) are rowdy. Locker room-type talk centers on their own aspirations and boasts. Personalities are distinctive. Public Gar is barely noticed; Private Gar quietly sits at his feet. “There was fun and there was laughing,” public Gar says to himself after they leave. Even Cannon O’Byrne (Ciarán O`Reilly) comes to say goodbye.

Gar’s painful lack of connection with his Da provides vertebrae. The meat of the play is vivid interaction between the alter egos. As public Gar, David McElwee is as rueful, frightened, and morose as he is excited. He soars, spirals downward and freezes in stasis hoping against hope for resolution. Each state emerges in direct relation to private Gar. Inhibition is palpable.

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

A.J. Shively is superb as private Gar. The role could be an audition tape showcasing variety skills. He sings, dances, mimics, employs multiple accents, and punctuates the air with gesture. The multi-talented actor seems connected to public Gar even across a room. Facial expression says it all when compellingly still.

The third in Irish Rep’s successful Friel Project, Philadelphia, Here I Come! is another affecting, beautifully produced piece. The playwright spent his entire life in Ireland, yet understood the need to escape. Debuting on Broadway in 1966, Philadelphia put Friel on an international map despite Stanley Kaufman’s (The New York Times) discouraging review. If it was young, it was and is also fresh and entertaining without being flighty.

Director Ciarán O`Reilly has mined both Friel’s full tilt humor and the situation’s fraught emotion. Staging, is inventive, characteristics a delight. Despite a two “story” (upstairs/ downstairs) set, dramatization never feels constricted by the small stage. Pacing is a master class of nuanced breathing room/time to think, silence golden.

Charlie Corcoran’s set and Orla Long’s costumes evoke era, geography, economics and even personality. Dialect coach Jane Guyer Fujita offers accents so close, we really do feel characters are all local.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Opening: David McElwee, A. J. Shively

Irish Repertory Theatre presents
As part of The Friel Project
Philadelphia, Here I Come! By Brian Friel
Directed by Ciarán O`Reilly, Co-Founder of Irish Rep

Through May 5, 2024
Irish Rep
132 West 22nd Street

NEXT: Molly Sweeney  May 15-June 30, 2024

About Alix Cohen (1751 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.