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Philadelphia, Here I Come!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Even if - or perhaps especially when - you can't trust your own recollections, it's safe to trust a playwright's. If that playwright is Brian Friel - whose gifts for gently treading the boundaries between the real, the imaginary, and the remembered border on the magical - so much the better. You're unlikely to find that trust misplaced.

That's certainly the case with Philadelphia, Here I Come!, one of Friel's earliest and most deeply felt works. While on one level it's about the myriad and confusing ways the past and present continually inform each other, it's even more basically a bittersweet love letter to the joys and pains of growing up and moving away. Director Ciarán O'Reilly has beautifully realized all these aspects of the play in his current production for the Irish Rep, which runs through September 4.

In refusing to shy away from either the play's bittersweet sentimentality or its warnings about the positive and negative effects of memory's unreliability, O'Reilly and his company have dug deep into the play's dramatic core. They've emerged with something that's enormously satisfying as a cautionary tale, a comedy, and a coming-of-age story, with nearly every element operating in serene synchronicity. That's particularly impressive given the play's unpredictable tone, which is sometimes whimsical, sometimes frenetic, and sometimes fragmented, but is always honest in its depiction of the inner and outer workings of 25-year-old Gareth O'Donnell.

Gar, as he's generally known to his family and friends, is spending his last night in the small Irish village of Ballybeg, before departing early the next morning to live with his aunt in Philadelphia. While preparing for the trip, Gar finds himself obsessed with details about the life and people he's about to leave behind. The slow, straightforward steps of Gar's housekeeper, the aged Madge (Paddy Croft), provoke an overwhelming sense of impending loss; memories flood his mind of Kate Doogan (Tessa Klein), the young woman he once nearly married but who is now married to someone else, and his aunt Lizzy (Helena Carroll), and the day she convinced him to move to America; and he's silently crippled with regret about the cold, distant relationship he's long had with his father (Edwin C. Owens) that likely won't be resolved before Gar leaves.

If the story can be said to have one key motivating factor, it's this - Friel sees the father-son relationship as the most vital for Gar's emotional well-being. That Gar is portrayed by two different actors - Michael FitzGerald as the one other people see, James Kennedy as the one who emerges only when Garth is alone - underscores this: One of the play's funniest and most powerful scenes finds all three men seated around a dinner table, with the Private Gar predicting his father's words and actions with unyielding and unsettling accuracy.

It's a powerful way of communicating the unstated feelings between Gar and his father, and O'Reilly and his actors never miss a beat. It's the theatrical equivalent of still life, compelling as much for its reluctance to move as it is for its energy; much of the production is just this way, and O'Reilly finds plenty of excitement entrenched in Friel's writing, from beginning to end. This isn't to say that every moment works completely - sometimes O'Reilly seems to be trying too hard to emphasize the "memory play" aspect, and sacrifices specificity for a forced fluidity.

This doesn't, however, happen often; most of the time, everyone's right on the ball and turning out some highly impressive work. Owens's rock-solid stolidity, Croft's earthy plainspokenness, Klein's quiet appeal, and Carroll's haphazard blending of silliness and senility, if not the only highlights, are at least major ones.

But it's the Gars who drive the play, and FitzGerald and Kennedy are up to the challenge. They don't look, sound, or dress much alike - FitzGerald is a rustic Everyman; Kennedy a handsome, well-scrubbed social creature of the night - but they complement each other beautifully in appearance, voice, and manner, and create a person so complete that it's impossible to imagine to imagine the Public Gar without the constantly spoken subtext his private self provides.

Kennedy, for example, always seems on the verge of dancing - he'll perch high above his bed and make a near-acrobatic leap to join FitzGerald for just a few lines before dashing off again on his own. The meaning is obvious: one is earthbound, the other couldn't be held down with ropes. But they're both vital halves of the same person, whose need for change is as strong as his desire to stay in one place. This, like Gar's rocky relations with his father, is something Friel never completely resolves.

That's the point, of course - there aren't easy answers to every problem. But the vivid landscape of the human mind and heart Friel has painted in Philadelphia, Here I Come! is unquestionably one in which the questions themselves seem of infinitely greater importance. O'Reilly, Kennedy, Fitzgerald, and everyone else make that seem like a wonderful place to be.

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Philadelphia, Here I Come!
Through September 4
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes, with one intermission
Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.727.2737