The 2001 Williamstown Theater Festival is closing with a double shot of Irish. Its 95-seat Nikos Stage season ended Sunday with director Nicholas Martin trying out his production of Frank McGuiness’ anti-war play “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.” Previously seen in the Berkshires and Boston in a Shakespeare & Co. production in 1988, Martin has scheduled it for his 2001-02 Huntington Theater Co. season at the 890-seat Boston University Theater. Meantime, the WTF’s mainstage season is wrapping up with Brian Friel’s sad, sometimes overly sentimental and coy leaving-home play “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” seen on Broadway in 1996. Deftly directed by Kyle Donnelly, astutely cast and atmospherically set, it’s a first-rate WTF production despite a last-minute cast change in one of the play’s two leading roles (that’s the reason actor Noah Bean had script in hand at the performance seen).
Bean was in a small role in the production when, just a couple of days before it opened, he was called upon to replace Lee Pace as the private Gar O’Donnell, the inner voice of the play’s central character. Pace left for personal reasons. Bean and the rest of the cast obviously rose to the challenge, and he is not only giving a finely nuanced performance that incorporates book in hand, but also he and Austin Lysy, who plays public Gar equally sensitively, are acting together as a truly integrated entity.
This early Friel work is set in his fictional Northern Ireland town of Ballybeg in 1964 on the eve of Gar’s departure for a new life in Philadelphia, and in flashbacks. Private and public Gar mull over their hopes and fears as he and most of the other characters reveal themselves as disappointed loners unable to communicate their repressed affection and love to one another. Gar dearly wants his dour father, who is old enough to be his grandfather and who has been a grieving widower since his wife died three days after Gar’s birth, to express some affection for him, to remember a moment of happiness they once shared. That never happens, though late in the play the father (a touching Henry Stozier) reveals to his housekeeper Madge (lovingly played by Nancy Robinette) that he, too, remembers a moment of happiness with his son, albeit a different one. The play ends with father and son still at a distant impasse, their hearts broken. “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” may be a comedy, but it’s not cheery.
It also has built-in problems that have been exacerbated by the passing years. It’s increasingly difficult to cope with young Gar’s cuter moments (such as when he “conducts” and “plays” the Mendelssohn violin concerto to a recording), and he seems to behave more as though he’s 15 than 25. Also, the scene in which Gar’s aunt and uncle, who have invited him to live with them in Philadelphia, arrive in Ballybeg seems unnecessary, Friel having already established all an audience needs to know about them. And Friel’s love of repetition is taken too far.
Yet the play has an innocent sweetness, and dialogue that’s often just right for people who are basically inarticulate. One of the play’s best scenes is the one in which three of Gar’s feckless buddies, who don’t even have the imagination to come to say goodbye to him of their own accord, are bribed to do so by caring Madge. They brag about their nonexistent success with women before dashing off about their aimless business without ever really saying farewell.
The entire cast does nicely in roles large and small, helped by Hugh Landwehr’s setting of several rooms behind the O’Donnells’ rough-hewn stone general store, a high stone wall and a dreary sky hovering over them. Throughout, director Donnelly knows what she’s doing and does it efficiently.