A.J. Shively and David McElwee, photo by Jeremy Daniel

Philadelphia, Here I Come!

A beautiful production of Brian Friel's classic play at the Irish Rep in NYC

Written by:
Nella Vera
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“Philadelphia, Here I Come!” is the third play in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Brian Friel season and, happily, it lives up to the high standards set by the first two outstanding shows they presented, “Translations” and “Aristocrats.” Directed with sensitivity and delicacy by Ciarán O’Reilly, who also plays the pivotal part of S.B. O’Donnell, the production is a beautiful showcase for Friel’s stunning writing.

Set in the mythical Ballybeg, County Donegal in Ireland, the play takes place the night before 25-year-old Gareth (Gar) O’Donnell is set to leave his small country town for a big city in America. He is exuberant and excited at his prospects – the classic immigrant story of a young man optimistically seeking his fortune in a new land. Or is it?

As the evening unfolds, Gar – represented by David McElwee as “Public” Gar and A.J. Shively as “Private” Gar, begins to show some signs of regret for the upcoming trip. While the outstanding McElwee speaks the somewhat subdued outward dialogue that the other characters hear, Shively’s lines are the inner voice, representing his soul and conscience and giving us an insight into his divided mind. The two could not look more physically different but have found ways to be gorgeously in sync, showing us two sides of the same character. Shively shines as the unfiltered alter ego – he prances about the stage, enacts different American accents and personas, and switches quickly from anger to exuberance to despair to hope showing the duality of Gar’s emotions as he prepares to leave home forever. It is an exquisite, show-stopping performance that should be remembered in the coming awards season.

David McElwee and A.J. Shively, photo by Jeremy Daniel

Gar’s decision to go to the U.S. follows the end of a romantic relationship that has left him heartbroken and contemplating a hopeless future. In a flashback, we see that Gar’s aunt Lizzy, his mother’s brash and rather vulgar sister (Private Gar’s words), has returned to Ireland with her husband, Con, to convince Gar to emigrate and live with them as a surrogate son in the titular Philadelphia. They are childless, and Gar is the only child of the five sisters in her family.  Although this is his first time meeting her, Gar, yearning for a mother figure (his own died only a few days after this birth), feels drawn to her. A scene where she hugs him is particularly affecting as it is clear he’s probably not had a hug from a parent in many years. He is promised a job, a room with his own bathroom, a lively bustling city, and family who will be affectionate and take an interest in him.

His own father, S.B. or “Screwballs” as Private Gar likes to call him, is a man of few words who shows little emotion. Indeed, Private Gar can recite the nightly dinner conversation word for word, an example of the monotony of life in rural Ireland that he’s trying to escape.  Despite this, it is clear that Gar loves his father and is desperate to connect with him. As his departure draws near, Madge, the family’s longtime maid played by the excellent Terry Donnelly, tries to convince both father and son to speak before it is too late. The anguish heightens with every missed opportunity.  Dinner goes by awkwardly and mostly silently. Just when it looks like the two might finally converse, Canon O’ Byrne, the headmaster, arrives for his nightly game of chess with S.B.

Ciarán O’Reilly, A.J. Shively and David McElwee, Photo by Jeremy Daniel

When the two finally have their moment, Gar is devastated that one of his early and tender memories is not remembered by his father – did it even happen?  Later, S.B. recounts another rather sweet father-son memory to Madge, but Gar does not hear. Like in many of Friel’s plays, things are left unsaid, and his characters fight inner battles that keeps them and their hearts closed off.

Friel’s play also beautifully underlines the inner conflict that most immigrants struggle with. Longing for the motherland and homesickness exist side by side with the excitement for a new life and new fortunes. This poignant struggle is masterfully depicted in “Philadelphia Here I Come,” thanks to stellar performances by the top-notch cast and expert and nuanced direction by O’Reilly.

“Philadelphia, Here I Come!” continues at the Irish Repertory Theatre through May 5, 2024. Tickets and information at https://irishrep.org/show/2023-2024-season/philadelphia-here-i-come-3/.

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