With Brian Friel’s new “Molly Sweeney” opening to acclaim in Dublin, the Roundabout Theater Company does Broadway a service by reminding us of the playwright’s rich beginnings. Any production of “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” is only as successful as its attempts to convey, as one character puts it, “this loneliness, this groping,” that traps Friel’s endearing characters. By that or any other standard, the Roundabout production is a fine revival.
As well it should be, directed as it is by longtime Friel collaborator Joe Dowling. The former artistic director of Dublin’s Abbey and Gaiety theaters, Dowling steers a crack ensemble through Friel’s heartbreaking Gaelic terrain. “Philadelphia” is one more notch in the Roundabout’s growing reputation as Broadway’s most consistent provider of quality fare. First produced in 1964, “Philadelphia” is an early glimpse into the author’s oft-revisited fictional Irish village of Ballybeg. Set in the early 1960s, the play traces the final evening and morning of young Gareth O’Donnell’s life in his native land: He’s heading for Philadelphia, in part to escape a stifling homelife with his cold, seemingly unloving father, S.B. O’Donnell (Milo O’Shea).
But leaving doesn’t come without pain and trepidation. The 25-year-old Gareth must say goodbye, probably forever, to Madge (Pauline Flanagan), the beloved housekeeper who helped raise him, and Kate (Miriam Healy-Louie), the girl he loved and lost.
It doesn’t help that he’s moving to America at the invitation of an aunt (Aideen O’Kelly) he hardly knows, having seen her only once, and at her drunken worst.
But the tie that binds the tightest is the boy’s unfinished business with his emotionally stingy father, an old man with “dead eyes and a flat face.”
If the man would only break through the household’s numbing predictability by saying something honest and caring, Gar just might be persuaded to stay. In the end he leaves, “but perhaps with doubts.”
Actually, Gar is nothing if not filled with doubts and conflict. And here is where Friel works what can either be theatrical magic or gimmick. Two actors play the character, one the “public” Gar and one the “private.” They debate, taunt and console one another, the private Gar giving voice to the proud, wounded boy’s true feelings.
At the Roundabout, the device comes close to magic, what with the casting of Jim True as the public Gar and Robert Sean Leonard as the private. Neither of these charming, garrulous performers hits a false note in their emotional pax de deux, nailing the restless ambition of youth, the terror of the unknown and a young man’s childlike longing for love.
Equally fine is Flanagan as the loving Madge and O’Shea as the gruff father. O’Kelly all but steals the second act as the drunken, pitiful Aunt Lizzy, turning what verges on stereotype into poignance. Rest of the cast, as various villagers and visitors, rounds out a terrific ensemble.
Played against John Lee Beatty’s convincingly rustic country house set, Dowling finds the delicate blend of exuberance and yearning that marks much of Friel’s work, even if “Philadelphia” is short on the poetry that would lift later Ballybeg excursions like “Dancing at Lughnasa.”
By now, there’s a certain obviousness in the relationship between father and son detailed here, and some might even find the goings-on a tad maudlin. But few won’t be moved by the two Gars catching their last glimpse of the old housekeeper, or feel the frustration of possible connections missed.