O’Reilly’s staging of a favorite Irish work reaches levels that most productions don’t get to; Kennedy gives a performance that matches anything on a New York stage right now.
Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” is precisely the sort of play the Irish Repertory Theatre was created to showcase, and the new production of the playwright’s first genuine success, flawlessly cast and luminously staged by Producing Director Ciaran O’Reilly, reaffirms the group’s mission, as if reaffirmation were needed.
This is not just a pleasant revival of a much loved work by Ireland’s leading playwright, the sort of thing a high quality summer theater might come up with. It’s more than that, constituting an inspired rethinking of a play which appears, on its surface, to be an appealing but rather conventional “memory play,” but which has deeper levels not approached by most productions.
This is, of course, the Donegal writer’s celebrated “coming-of-age” play about Gareth O’Donnell, the lonely son of a tight-fisted, monosyllabic storekeeper in Ballybeg, the town Friel created and about which he has written, almost obsessively, since the very early days of his brilliant career.
What makes “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” rise far above the dozens of plays it superficially resembles is, in addition to the sheer excellence of Friel’s writing, a clever device he certainly didn’t invent, but which he employs with dazzling virtuosity and an almost total absence of anything even remotely resembling sentimentality.
The device is, of course, the presence in the play of two Gars, one who struggles through the difficult hours of his final day in Ballybeg, the day before he leaves for an extremely uncertain Pennsylvania future, and a second Gar, an alter ego unseen by the characters in the play, but commenting sardonically on everything that goes on as the lad prepares for his departure.
In the original New York production, the impish Donal Donnelly played “private,” i.e. unseen Gar, while the late Patrick Bedford, slightly too old for the role, did admirable yeoman service as the “public” Gar.
O’Reilly has been extremely fortunate in finding an actor hitherto unknown and only recently arrived from Ireland, Michael FitzGerald, who is both young enough to be poignantly convincing as the nubile Gar, and skilled enough to put the role across in all its fullness and subtlety.
The real secret of the brilliance of the Rep’s “Philadelphia,” however, is the daring, relentless and decidedly edgy performance being given by James Kennedy as Gar Private.
Kennedy, celebrated in Dublin and London for the title role in Conall Morrison’s celebrated stage adaptation of Patrick Kavanagh’s novel “Tarry Flynn,” has had extensive dance training, which shows in his work as “Private” in every scene, start to finish.
Kennedy, prowling the Irish Rep stage like a panther, subtly emphasizes the darkness underlying much of Friel’s writing here, throwing clarifying light on the darkness behind so much of the laughter, without ever begging for the audience sympathy which the character, with his sly purchase on the hypocrisies and banalities going on under his nose, could so easily have summoned up.
The agile and articulate Kennedy is giving an absolutely staggering performance, one of the very best ever to grace the Rep stage, and fully the match of anything going on in any New York theater at the moment.
The lithe, graceful actor has achieved one of those rare performances capable to transforming a play to the extent of convincing the audience that they’ve never fully experienced it before.
The excellence of O’Reilly’s new “Philadelphia,” however, by no means stops with the work being done by Kennedy and FitzGerald.
There’s not a weak or poorly gauged performance in the whole 14-actor cast, but special mention should be made of the beautifully calibrated work being done by a few of the senior members of the ensemble.
Helena Carroll, daughter of the late playwright, Paul Vincent Carroll, familiar to New York audiences for her work with her own company, the Irish Players, a few decades ago, brings rich humor and dazzling energy to the part of Lizzy Sweeney, sister of Gar’s late mother, and source of the boy’s invitation to Philadelphia.
Accompanied by her humiliated husband, Con, in the pleasantly subdued person of John Leighton and by Ben Burton (nicely understated by Geddeth Smith), the “third person” in a bizarre marriage, the joyous Carroll makes something spectacular out of what could, in other hands, be a fairly tedious role.
As Master Boyle, the alcoholic schoolmaster who may, in fact, be Gar’s biological father, the normally suave and controlled James A. Stephens is a revelation, an unsteady creature who seems almost to wear his damaged nervous system outside his clothing, with just moments on stage, Stephens is unforgettable.
Perhaps best of all is Paddy Croft as Madge the wise, broken-hearted housekeeper, a role warmly associated with the beloved Pauline Flanagan, who put an indelible stamp on the role. The wraithlike Croft, a lifelong friend and colleague of the late actress, creates her own rather fragile Madge, giving a performance Flanagan would almost certain have enjoyed and appreciated.
As S.B. O’Donnell, Gar’s unyielding remote father, Edwin G. Owens is a superb stoic, aided considerably by a certain resemblance he bears to young Michael FitzGerald, the gifted actor who plays his son.
Tim Ruddy, Joe Beriangero and Darren Connolly, who play the three friends who pay a farewell visit to the O’Donnell household on Gar’s final night in Ballybeg, are excellent and authentic. The moment in which Connolly, as the insecurely bullying Ned, whips off his belt and gives it to Gar as a tribute and possibly a weapon, is particularly moving and eloquent in the Rep’s new production.
Leo Leyden’s late-arriving Canon Mick O’Byrne, turning up, as always, just in time for a meal, is wry and truthful.
In very small roles, Tessa Klein as Kate Doogan, Gar’s lost love, and Gil Rogers, as her disapproving father, the Senator, make strongly positive marks, despite the brevity of their time onstage.
As frequently as Brian Friel has placed his work in Ballybeg, Co. Donegal, it’s interesting to note that in this particular early play, he felt obliged to translate the name of the village, having Kate Doogan remind Gar of something he certainly already knows, namely that the name of the place comes across in English as literally, “Small Town.”
David Raphel’s two-level set is simplicity itself, with Gar’s bedroom, where he broods and plays his beloved recordings of classical music, behind and slightly above the O’Donnells’ spare, unadorned dining area.
The costumes provided by David Toser are just what they should be, tired, worn items that, very clearly, have seen better days, and weren’t all that much to begin with.
Considering James Kennedy’s excellence in “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” it’s intensely regrettable that the Dublin production of “Tarry Flynn,” in which Pauline Flanagan scored a great success as the hero’s mother, made the transfer from Ireland to London’s Royal National Theatre, but, unlike Gar O’Donnell, not the promised voyage to America.
Friel’s warm, incisive play will be at the Irish Rep through Sept. 4. as one of the very finest things the Rep has ever done, it richly deserves an even longer run. Even if you think you know “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” there are aspects of this fine production which will surprise you, move you and reward you. See it, by all means.