Philadelphia, Here I Come!

Wed, Mar 17, 2010, 00:00

GaietyTheatre, Dublin

With a play as enduring and influential as Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come!, first staged in 1964, you have to continually remind yourself just how groundbreaking it was. That’s the curious consequence of a daring experiment in form so successfully executed it ushered the play from radical to canonical in the blink of an eye. A single protagonist split into two performers might once have stopped you in your tracks. Now, we greet Gar Public and Gar Private – the seen presence and “the man within” – as affectionately as old friends, as the grocer’s son once again prepares to leave behind the lost chances and stifling prospects of Ballybeg for the endless promise of America.

It may seem jarring to look back with nostalgia on a play whose title and lead character treat the future with almost manic optimism. But the play itself is rife with such spurring contradictions. “You know what you’re doing,” Tom Vaughan Lawlor’s Private warns his alter ego, Ciaran O’Brien. “Collecting impressions, memories and images which will only make you miserable.”

Such is the predicament of both Gar and Noel Pearson’s assured new production, caught between the imperative to move things forward while forever gazing back.

Director Dominic Dromgoole doesn’t need to stress the parallels between a stale 1960s Ireland, driving its children away, and a contemporary nation of shrinking opportunities. Yet time has bestowed the patina of a period drama, something frozen into the delft and cardigans of Jonathan Fensom’s dutiful, uninspiring design, and more poignantly present in Gar’s fantasies of a new land glowing with opportunities. At one point he proudly imagines himself the head of General Motors. Will you tell him, or should I? In his near-vaudevillian routine of running commentaries, acerbic interjections, dances and comic accents, Lawlor is commanding as Gar Private, making him the unleashed imagination of a young man frustrated by routine and a rebel against silence. O’Brien’s Gar Public is necessarily more restrained, but rarely overshadowed, and together they make a riveting double act, pivoting between fun and heartbreak. Barry McGovern’s tremendously rigid SB O’Donnell, Gar’s emotionally absent father, also suggests the ache of silence and suppression that might split a young man in two.

In some exquisite portrayals of precisely drawn characters, the stage abounds with the anguish of unspoken words. Brid Brennan’s quietly tragic housekeeper Madge is a marvel of indirect communication and lacerating wit, Enda Oates’s rumpled schoolmaster drowns his sentiments in booze or funnels it into poetry, while Marion O’Dwyer’s émigré aunt plasters her discontent with American affectations.

Returning to the venue of its first performance, the play seems to ask for a fresh perspective. The Gaiety’s troublesome sightlines don’t help, but this production’s deep reverence makes it hard to find one. The force of its formal jolt may have diminished and the emigrant’s fantasy now seems very wilted, but Friel’s tender portrait of lives suspended between memory and hope, a misty past and uncertain future, seems forever vivid, frozen in time. Until April 10