When Brian Friel’s PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME first opened in 1964, it put a bit of an Irish spin on the kitchen-sink drama, bringing humor to a story that also was analogous to troubling times in Ireland. Now it seems more a nostalgic memory play. The new Irish Heritage Theatre’s introductory production is a very charming take on the Friel classic, but it might have benefited from a bit more of the spirit and tempo of the former style.
Following a period of troubling economic and migration issues for Ireland, Friel wrote about Gar O’Donnell, who is 25 and set to leave his small Irish village, his distant father, his friends and head for America to make his fortune and his future in the big city of Philadelphia. In the final hours leading up to his departure, the “public” Gar (played here by Dan McGlaughlin) considers his decision and his relationships through an internal dialogue with his private self (played by Steve Medvidick).
Directed by John Gallagher, this production has the right air of melancholy and some terrific performances. This play is filled with more than its share of standard Irish theatre “types,” but they are not too overdone here. Gallagher also does well in creating the nervous tension brought about when a bright young man tries desperately to find proof that his father loves him before he leaves the old man behind. A better sense of pacing and rhythm, however, would have helped propel the storytelling; and a stronger sense of the period was needed, with anachronistic attitudes, gestures, movement and details apparent throughout the show.
The set design used the space well, though there were some tight spots for blocking, and the attention to detail could have been stronger in terms of decoration. The lighting was effective in creating mood and did an admirable job of defining other locations in the limited space, but had some issues in execution.
While this play does not need a slick look or approach, there was a certain “polish” missing from several technical and performance elements.
Rising above any drawbacks, though, was some wonderful acting. At the heart of this production was the unassuming but remarkable work by McGlaughlin as Gar (Public). He was thoughtful and quietly intense as he portrayed this introspective young man struggling to come to terms with a range of feelings. There was solid intention behind each glance, each reaction and (though this may seem odd to notice) every move of his hands as he fidgeted, worked with props, picked at some chipped paint on the wall, smoothed a tablecloth. There was just a natural ease about this performance, as well as genuine emotion.
Medvidick’s energetic, bold and intense Gar (Private) made the perfect flip-side to McGlaughlin, though perhaps trying a bit too hard at a few points. Kate Danaher was a warm and no-nonsense housekeeper, and equally adept at showing the character’s underlying sadness (but director and actress could have been stronger in delineating the role’s random “narrator” functions). John Cannon gave us an appropriately undemonstrative aging father and found some honest pathos in his final scenes, though he was sometimes a bit too deliberate. Kirsten Quinn’s Kate (Gar’s local sweetheart who “got away”) was spirited and fun in a flashback, and nicely played the tension and regret in her later encounter with Gar. Thomas-Robert Irvin, Eric Thompson and William Crawford were a burst of rowdy energy as Gar’s local footballer friends, each giving the right tone to their individual characters and showing the juvenile braggadocio that Gar realizes he has outgrown.
Mary Pat Walsh added some fun moments as blathering and weepy Aunt Lizzy, while Steve Gulick, Dave Scheffler, Jerry Carrier, John Reardon and Arnold Kendall did well as a local teacher, Kate’s father, Lizzy’s husband, Lizzy’s American friend, and the parish priest, respectively.
PHILADELPHIA HERE I COME
by Brian Friel
Directed by John Gallagher
May 5-20, 2012
Irish Heritage Theatre
at Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5
825 Walnut St.