Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! returns to the Gaiety where it was first performed in 1964 during the Dublin Theatre Festival. Director Dominic Dromgoole brings with him extensive experience working with classics from different periods. Proceeding with due respect for both playwright and play, he invests the production with the energy needed for a successful revival.
The exclamatory response to emigration in its title belies the play’s genesis in the wake of the dire 1950s. Friel’s Gar O’Donnell is, importantly, a voluntary émigré in waiting, not one compelled to leave. Revivals in our Tiger phase found regrettably little quarter with younger audiences who overlooked the profound sympathy for the young which lies at the heart of a play much more about the search for love than emigration.
Roles are balanced between the static and the kinetic. All the female characters move, talk, and propel the plot - even the undeveloped character of Kate/Kathy (Maude Fahy) whose wavering name in the text suggests she is more an idea of love than a real girl. Brid Brennan’s adroit Madge is refreshingly exasperated rather than mothering. Her dignity masks both personal loss and her peripheral status as surrogate and employee. The comic potential in this role is kept in check by actor and director and given over more exuberantly to the role of Lizzie Sweeney, sister of Maire, Gar’s long dead mother. Lizzie, another childless woman, reappears after many years in Bailebeg with husband Con (Donagh Deeney) and American friend Ben Burton in tow. Lizzie’s need for a child to share her American life activates the pending crisis of Gar’s departure; but in the Gaiety production her appearance is also the comic zenith towards which the first half of the play has been building. Kitted out in full Hyacinth Bucket gear and pretension, although a bit worse for the drink, Marion O’Dwyer as Lizzie delivers a finely keyed performance which encompasses the pathos underlying Friel’s work.
Tension is also maintained between the frenetic antics of the young men and the stagnation of the elders. The two manifestations of Gar (a tad too frenetic in Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s Private Gar) and the three aging local lads who come to see Gar off vent their frustrations with the strictures of the time and the place, embodied in S. B. O’Donnell, Canon Mick O’Byrne and Master Boyle. Barry McGovern’s interpretation of O’Donnell exploits his talent for maddeningly laconic delivery; Alan Devlin as the Canon breezily obviates his duty to his flock, an airtight performance of self-absorption; while Enda Oates’ Master Boyle is less the pedant he has been in some renderings than he is a pathetic wretch whose attempts at self-aggrandisement are cancelled by his final cadging of the price of a drink.
The trio of Yanks, in their single scene, provide needed ballast to Gar’s fantasies of American bliss. The only American in the play, Ben Burton (Daniel Reardon reprising a role for which he is admirably suited) delivers the central question of the play “Ireland-America – what’s the difference?” The implication goes largely unacknowledged by those on stage but should not be lost on the audience. This is a play about finding one’s place in the world wherever that might be. Ciaran O’Brien’s intelligent but stunted Public Gar struggles and fails to secure a sliver of a shared memory of love he might carry with him on his travels. Dromgoole never allows the audience to mistake Gar or any of his pals for boys. That these are 25-year old men is crucial to our understanding of Gar’s predicament.
Philadelphia Here I Come! must now be viewed as a period piece regardless of the times we are in. Nothing will enable a contemporary audience to partake of Gar’s longing for exotic hamburgers and Cokes, or even incinerators. His Bailebeg world is now more foreign to our experience than are major American cities. The play always listed dangerously close to sentimentality, a tendency Friel largely controls in his text. Dromgoole’s interpretation, in turn, acknowledges the angst of our era without pandering to it.
Staging and costumes by Jonathan Fensom are refreshingly restrained and apt, particularly in his choice of palette. In an age of intrusive innovation in the field, Fensom has been very faithful to Friel’s stage directions, insuring that the dull respectability of the era is impeccably preserved. There is a nearly institutional quality to the shades of green, and the dim overhead lighting focuses attention in the central spaces over the kitchen table and Gar’s bed in the two rooms of the split set.
Special plaudits for Christopher Logan as Tom, one of Gar’s buddies. This young actor’s comic gift presages well for the future - a future which will, no doubt, see Philadelphia Here I Come! on the Dublin stage time and time again.