Artistic director Joe Dowling has endeared himself to Minneapolis theatergoers as the man who brought laughter back to the Guthrie. He squeezed the chuckles out of Chekhov in June, and now, with the revival of Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” Dowling once again has them rolling in the aisles.
The fate of the new production seems almost predestined. Dowling, one of the chief interpreters of his friend Friel’s plays, comes to the Guthrie from Ireland’s Abbey Theater. “Philadelphia,” which takes place on the eve of a young Irish man’s departure to America, was written 32 years ago, after Friel apprenticed at the Guthrie under the great Tyrone Guthrie himself. And Donal Donnelly, who plays the father in this production, played the young man Gar in the show’s 1964 Dublin premiere. Sweet synergies, all. Still, poetic resonances do not, by themselves, make a great show. That takes acting. And Dowling knows some great actors.
Two of the best are Rainn Wilson and Lee Mark Nelson, the duo who portray the main character. The play’s key conceit is the splitting of that character into two parts: the Public Gar, who is shy and frustrated by his lack of ability to communicate, especially with his father; and the Private Gar, who as the personification of Gar’s inner thoughts articulates every hilarious notion that travels through Gar’s head.
The chemistry between Wilson and Nelson is extraordinary. Nelson does a tremendous job of conveying the tortuousness and magnitude of Public Gar’s decision to leave his homeland. Bouncing between rollicking wit and brooding melancholy, Nelson brings to life the ambivalence of this watershed moment. But the undeniable star of the show is Wilson, who for three hours holds court with a hilariously irreverent torrent of sarcastic asides, Patton-like pep talks, anguished antics, antagonistic tirades and soul-cleansing confessions. Wilson’s emotional range is astonishing, and his comic timing is impeccable.
Donnelly’s performance as Gar’s father finds genius at the other end of the acting spectrum. While Private Gar bounces around the living room imploring his father to say something — anything — out of the ordinary, Donnelly sits implacably still, reading the newspaper and clacking his false teeth. His mute, thickheaded reserve is so unnerving that it becomes impossible not to empathize with Gar, who simply wants an encouraging word or two from the old man.
Pauline Flanagan as Madge, the housekeeper, rounds out the central cast, and John Lee Beatty’s open, split-level set does a fantastic job of shortening the Guthrie’s vast thrust to bring the audience right into the O’Donnell’s living room.
“Philadelphia, Here I Come!” is the production the Guthrie audience has been waiting for: a signature piece to establish Dowling as the shaper of a new era while offering a thread of hope that the Guthrie might somehow rediscover some of its former glory. There are no more lingering doubts.