Destination Unknown

At threshold of escape, Irish immigrant’s journey starts, ends in his head

Given the strength of Ireland’s economy, dubbed the “Celtic Tiger,” it might be tough to remember a time when the nation’s young people flocked to the United States for a chance at opportunity, even if that meant taking a menial job.

In Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” set in 1964 in a village called Ballybeg, 25-year-old Gareth O’Donnell is eager to move to Philadelphia to work in a hotel—the first step to a life that will see the realization of his dreams of prosperity and success.

Friel’s direction involves watching the public Gareth in the throes of leaving what he believes to be his humdrum life, while the private Gareth shares his innermost feelings.

Through the private Gareth, we are supposed to see and feel his struggles with a cold and distant father, the isolation even among friends, the frustration at a love lost through indecision and fear and even his inability to see the love, however incompletely that it is expressed.

The public/private dramatic device is fraught with peril and needs a better production than the one currently on stage at the Irish Repertory. I am a tremendous fan of this company, but despite a highly adept cast, this “Philadelphia” seems flat and never reaches beyond characterizations and pedestrian sentiments.

Director Ciarán O’Reilly merely skims the surface of the play and has a hard time modulating the script’s subtleties and completely abandons its lyricism. The public Gareth frolics more like a 17-year-old than a man in his mid-twenties at the beginning of the play and O’Reilly then allows him to be brooding and depressive by the end. Even with the private Gareth shadowing him and commenting on virtually every moment, the character becomes muddy. While the private Gareth is a smooth, idealized version of himself, his motivations are often unclear.

Michael FitzGerald is a strong actor, but his performance as public Gareth has not been molded into something beyond moping. James Kennedy as private Gareth is quite good in the character’s impassioned monologues. These give us a glimpse into the strength of the writing but they are ultimately predictable and overbearing. Kennedy, though, radiates a captivating stage presence, and his controlled hysteria when working with just the script can be quite moving. However, it appears that O’Reilly didn’t quite know what to do with the central theatrical device and the tension between Gareth and himself and Gareth and his real world just isn’t there, and so the whole production suffers.

The play is a series of set pieces in which we see public Gareth going through his life narrated and commented upon by his private self. We see him lose the girl, feel suffocated in his relationship with his father, leap at the chance of escape through his Aunt Lizzy from Philadelphia, but we never know what drives him other than a desire to escape. The scenes are generally well played, but there is not the accumulation of emotions and experiences that would drive Gareth to do what all the characters (except Aunt Lizzy) see as a rash act—giving up a comfortable home for the great unknown in America. There is however, no accumulation of tension and ultimately no reason for us to care about Gareth—public or private—who just seems self-indulgent and immature.

The cast, nonetheless, manages to be engaging as they go through the motions. Paddy Croft as Madge, housekeeper to Gareth and his father, is quite lovely. Madge is a stock character who delivers Irish zingers, but Croft is winning. Helena Carroll as Aunt Lizzy is quite good but again in playing a stock character whose rough edges can’t conceal a loving heart. Tessa Klein is lovely as Kate, the girl Gareth lets get away, delivering one of the most real performances in the play and along with Croft providing the only believable foils for Gareth’s behavior.

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