Brian Friel’s decision to have two actors play the public face and private thoughts of the central character in his 1964 breakthrough play “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” is dramatic. But it carries attendant danger. More can sometimes turn out to be less, since too much display of the thoughts behind the character’s actions risks leaving auds with little thinking to do. It’s a problem not always solved by Lyndsey Turner’s thoughtfully cast revival.
Fed up to the back teeth with his small-town life in Ballybeg, Gar (Paul Reid) is on the brink of leaving for Philadelphia, a new world filled with Coca-Cola and Cadillacs. But on the night before he leaves, it’s not just thoughts and memories that assail him. He’s also beset by his alter ego (Rory Keenan).
What gives the device its edge is the variety of tones inhabited by the inner voice. Movement director Ann Yee dovetails and winds the two men around each other, but the dynamism comes from Keenan in a hugely impressive, mercurial perf. Initially popping out from behind the door of Rob Howell’s nicely suggestive set, light-footed Keenan insinuates himself among the cast with ease.
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The beguiling paradox of the play is that it’s consciously talky yet about people who cannot communicate. That much is made manifest in the darker, more reflective second act. Yet although the final confrontations are touching, because the first act failed to lay some of the necessary groundwork, instead of actually feeling Friel’s gathering pathos, you only sense the intent.
Christopher Shutt’s understated soundscape and Tim Lutkin’s night-time lighting show a gentle touch in atmosphere but there’s a lack of equivalent texture to some of the supporting performances. The actors in the key roles, however, have a shining subtlety, especially patient Valerie Lilley who artlessly presents a housekeeper who never thinks too much of herself. It’s her benign presence that gives Reid’s Gar pause as he glimpses what he is about to leave behind.
There are similarly touching hints of unspoken regret in James Hayes’ quietly compelling performance as Gar’s unblinking father. By the end, Friel’s gentle suggestion that Gar is unknowingly locked into becoming his father is wholly convincing.