If you can’t trust the Irish to do an Irish play, whom can you trust? Fatally bombastic lead perfs in this production of “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” helmed by Irish Rep producing director Ciaran O’Reilly, shred the delicate fabric of Brian Friel’s touching drama about a young man conflicted about leaving home and country for America. Friel (“Dancing at Lughnasa”) made his international rep with this 1964 play, which was nommed for a Tony in 1966 and could still bring a smile and a tear today — if mounted with more subtlety than it is here.
Everything onstage looks so right for this revival, how could anything possibly screw it up? David Raphel has dressed the set with the appropriately plain and simple household furnishings of a modest cottage in the little village of Ballybeg in County Donegal, where 25-year-old Gareth O’Donnell lives with his widowed father. Brian Nason’s lighting is warm, cozy even.
The faded quilt on Gareth’s narrow brass bed is a nice touch. So is the battered suitcase he packs to take to his new home in America. Even the aged housekeeper who shuffles in with freshly ironed shirts looks as if she comes with the kitchen furniture.
This is the home Gareth is preparing to leave forever, and the leave-taking is not an easy one for him. Public Gareth (Michael FitzGerald) professes to be happy to get away from boring old Ballybeg and thrilled at the notion of going to live with his aunt and uncle in Philadelphia. This is the lad who jumps up and down on his bed with excitement as he fantasizes about his new life in a land where all things are possible.
According to public Gareth, his last night in Ballybeg will be spent saying goodbye to old friends and neighbors and “collecting images, memories, and impressions” to take with him.
The problem with the plan is that it doesn’t take into account private Gareth (James Kennedy), the alter ego who knows all his secrets and lies. Prodded by this choruslike figure, Gareth is forced to admit the unhappy truth about himself: He is an emotional coward whose timidity has cost him his sweetheart’s love and his father’s affection, and now, even his beloved homeland.
In scene after scene, Friel keeps giving Gareth the chance to reach out to the people he loves and tell them so — before he turns into the lonely, joyless man his father has become. In scene after scene, Gareth keeps passing up his big chance. He is, after all, his father’s son.
That we feel only compassion and never contempt for this foolish boy is due to Friel’s gentle handling of him — with kindness and understanding totally lost on the thesps playing the dual role. In FitzGerald’s unbridled perf, the manic Gareth who shows his face to the world is much too callow for this sensitive hero. Making matters worse, Kennedy’s choice to play Gareth’s introspective self like some Machiavellian devil puts an absurdly sinister spin on his attempts to be honest with himself.
By way of contrast, several older thesps playing supporting roles know exactly what they should be doing — and are doing it admirably.
As Master Boyle, an alcoholic schoolteacher who has passed on his lost dreams to Gareth, James A. Stephens delivers his own lesson in how to play a forlorn shambles of a man (frayed pant legs and all) with dignity and restraint. Also worthy is Leo Leyden’s crisp delivery as the chatty Canon Mick, and the cruel efficiency with which Gil Rogers, as Senator Doogan, brushes off Gareth as his daughter’s suitor.
As for Paddy Croft … well, what can you say about a treasure like Croft? Shuffling around the kitchen as Madge the housekeeper, keeping one eye on her chores and the other on the father and son she knows better than they know themselves, she gives as honest a perf as ever was. There isn’t a false move or a phony reaction in the final, heartbreaking scene she plays with Edwin C. Owens, who quietly builds the cranky character of old man O’Donnell into a staggeringly tragic figure.
At the end, the play — and the real sorrow — belongs to them.