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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
Philadelphia Here I Come
By Elyse Sommer
The exile in Philadelphia is twenty-five-year-old Gar O'Donnell. He lives in familiar Friel territory, the fictional Irish village of Ballybeg, in this instance, circa 1964. The action, such as it is, unfolds during the night and early morning of Gar's leaving the dull familiarity of his native village for the unknown terrain of an American city.
As we follow Gar through his last night at home and watch his unfulfilled yearnings to communicate meaningfully with the people in his life -- most importantly, his father -- we realize that, emotionally speaking, he is already an exile, whose emigration is a desperate and frightening move to escape the dull routines into which he has allowed his life to settle. With the scene shifting between the present and past we learn about opportunities for happiness he has missed (he dropped out of college, passed dull nights out with superficial friends and, through timidity, lost the girl he loved). We meet the taciturn father he resents but wants desperately to know better; Madge, the housekeeper who has been the closest thing to a mother he has known; Kate Doogan, the girl now married to another and her father, Senator Doogan; his teacher, Master Boyle; the Philadelphia Aunt Lizzy and her husband who have jumpstarted his emigration to that city; four of his cronies and the local priest.
Following Gar actually means following two Gars, the Public and the Private. Each is played by a different actor. This is not the gimmick of an emerging playwright, but a most effective innovation to illustrate the inability of any of these people, Gar included, to connect with each other or themselves except in the most superficial way. It also clarifies the inhibiting effect of memory on action. Thus, the episodes of Gar's last night, are primarily backdrop for the core of the play's strength and charm: the dialogue between the Gar who is seen and heard by all the characters and is extremely expansive but invisible alter ego.
It is Private Gar's keen and often wryly funny promptings and observations that most strongly command our interest and sympathy for young Gar as a dreamer who has until now been too timid to seize the moments that could have made the difference between existence and a fully lived life. To lend real-life drama to this pivotal role a non-equity actor, Noah Bean, did not hesitate for a moment to seize the opportunity to play the private Gar when the originally cast actor abruptly left the show four days before the opening. Bean proves himself not only a courageous but gifted actor but an amazingly quick study. He is both touching and funny as he nudges and taunts his alter ego (another superb performance by Austin Lysy) by playing out fantasies of life in pop-culture dominated America and satirizing his Ballybeg life (as in the scene when Public Gar sits down to tea with his father, Private Gar hilariously anticipates every word and move). By the opening night performance, Bean seemed hardly to need the security blanket of carrying a script. His physical handling of that script was so smoothly integrated into his body language that its presence seemed almost written into the part.
As if one last-minute casting change weren't enough, the original Kate fell ill so that Kathy Hudnut had to step in. She too acquits herself admirably. While the play pivots around the two Gars, director Kyle Donnelly has elicited strong performances from the other cast members. Henry Strozier stands out as the father who says much with few words. He is truly moving when he reveals how much he will miss Gar (albeit to the housekeeper, rather than to his son) in his remembrance of the boy in a little sailor suit. Nancy Robinette, who plays the housekeeper, is a fine actress but she is the one member of the cast whose lines are often swallowed up in the thicket of the Irish dialect. Barbara Sims and Jon Curless ably bring Gar's Philadelphia aunt and uncle to life during the brief flashback to the visit that led to Gar's decision to go live with them..
Philadelphia, Here I Come! is typical of this playwright's work in that it has more talk than action and does not leave you with any clear answers. By the time all the memories are unpacked, and Gar's shabby suitcase is packed for his leave taking, his real act of courage is revealed: He will leave the past which remains less than fully known, for a future which is no less uncertain. When his alter ego asks "Why do you have to leave? Why? Why?" there is only one answer he can give: "I-I-I don't know."
Lincoln Center Festival featuring The Aristocrats, Freedom of the City and Friel's adaptation of Uncle Vanya
Give Me Your Answer DO!
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©Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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