by Brian Friel
Directed by Frank Galati

Asolo Repertory Company

Florida State U. Center for the Performing Arts: Mertz Theatre

5555 N. Tamiami Tr., Sarasota, FL, 941-351-8000

In revolving repertory Jan. 10 to April 12, 2014

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Seeing a streamlined 90 minute version of  Philadelphia, Here I Come! hailed in a preview feature in Sarasota's major paper surprised me. Playwright Brian Friel is known for insisting every word of his plays be honored. Also, two productions of it that I remember, admittedly from decades ago,  were longer. On opening night, my memory led to questioning things missing (at least one important female character) and things added (mainly songs and dances). Dismayed, I postponed writing a review until I could do some research and, above all, get a copy of Friel's script (alas! not in any local library or bookstore). I also searched for a possible adaptation (which I felt I'd seen here) in the name of the director, an acclaimed adapter for performance of such literary works as The Grapes of Wrath, but not plays. Now, noting an American Theatre January  announcement of a next issue article on Asolo Rep, featuring Frank Galati's adaptation of Friel's play, which is what I believe I saw, I'm giving my take on it. It's part of Asolo's five year study of The American Character in theatrical forms and expression.  So why an Irishman's play about an Irishman about to emigrate from Ireland? Because he's going to pursue the American immigrant's dream of a better life.  He's also going to leave family behind so his story fits Asolo's emphasis this season on The American Family.

Evening  and night before 25-year-old Gareth will depart from his home in back of his father's shop in County Donegal, he's torn between his hopes and fears. Friel shows these through two actors inhabiting one character. Private Gar, his lively, eager to leave alter-ego disparages just about everything about his present situation. Introverted,  usually noncommital but secretly emotional Public Gar suffers anguish while trying to screw his courage to the breaking point. Together they recreate scenes from the past showing, in particular, the inability of father and son to communicate and his failure to ask to marry Kate when her father stated his preference for a richer, older man. As Gar recalls how he loved Kate, Private Gar diminishes that as unsuitable.  It's not clear why Public Gar, though he rightfully regards housekeeper Madge Mulhern as his surrogate mother, holds back emotions toward her. (I think Friel originally made clear that she got better pay than Gar.) As for his real mother, exposition about her and her husband (not an ideal match but money played a part) and  her death at Gar's birth comes largely in subtext through two vaudeville-like Irish songs and dances. (They're well choreographed and performed, but like vaudeville acts, more satiric comment than mood-conveying).

When friends come to say good-bye, Public Gar seems to see in them the lack of a good future for those who stay in Ballybeg. He's egged on by Private Gar's pushing the American dream. Exemplifying long time lack of dreams  is Master Boyle, alcoholic teacher said to have loved Gar's mother. The boy-oes, fresh from a pub and exaggerating their luck with the lasses, give both Gars a real picture of  stultifying life in the town. (It didn't seem to extend to the variety of accents by the cast, few of whom pronounced words, especially place names, as said in the north.)

The most poignant scene involves tea (where a rosary is said BEFORE eating, as unlikely timing as a later song that is sung not in a home but in a church or school setting during a May crowning of a statue of Mary  as Queen to be venerated that month). Invited to tea and a table game afterward, Canon O'Byrne has with S. B. O'Donnell a talk accurately anticipated and imitated by Private to Public Gar, though the first stands next to the table while he's seen and heard by the second, who's upstairs in his room and supposedly separated from himself by a wall.  This pretend-wall is in great contrast to the downstairs kitchen mostly closed from dining room but open in back to the most cluttered imaginable store shelves. (There's also a huge building projected outside the shop. Unidentified and not used in the story. Some scenic imagination!)  The tea scene most illustrates the contrasting Gars. Public Gar may be unconnected to his father but he's respectful; Private Gar makes fun of him, calls him Screwballs. Public Gar avoids exchanges with his father; Private Gar makes fun of his routines (as aforementioned). Public Gar fails in his effort to communicate and he's upset at the failure; Private Gar is upset at the effort.

With all the past that has led up to all the problem of the present, why is Gar leaving at this particular time and for Philadelphia of all places? Friel presented the inciting incident: Gar's aunt, who emigrated to America but is lonely for family, invited him to be with her and her husband.  Now they've appeared to take Gar back. It's the drama's inciting incident!  But in the adaptation, Aunt's mentioned but missing.  Public Gar's hesitation to leave is underplayed in favor of  Private Gar's inclination to do so, weakening Gar's conflict.  I guess the lessened time it takes to resolve was a reason for streamlining but then why the vaudeville additions? Ironically, one of director Galati's notable talents is his way with getting actors to interpret well written language! Friel supplies same, both realistic and poetic. So why replace the inspired with the uninspired? The excellent Christian Conn as Public and Bernard Balbot as Private Gar are a split personality with different cadences and points of view headed toward the same endnot an imitation of Archie Rice offstage and onstage in The Entertainer.
As the uncommunicative S. B. O'Connell, Douglas Jones communicates wanting to show his love for his son but unable to do so. He speaks more formally of Gar and his dead, younger wife than he does to housekeeper Madge Mulhern. Peggy Roeder responds in kind  but with added affection to the son. Amanda Lynn Mullen is a sorrowful counterpart to Gar as her Kate Doogan obeys her father but loves neither him nor husband truly. Andrew Sellon impresses in his brief appearance as dutiful Canon O'Byrne, committed to routine. In a role different from the many he's done in the Rep, David Breitbarth, who must have been appealing to Gar's mother, brings out in the teacher Boyle depths not completely full of drink. Of Gar's pals, Brian Nemiroff stands out as outspoken Ned, who in fact has the most to say that's not fact. None of the  performances, however, go wrong.  The same may be said of costuming and lighting, though the set is more than necessarily cluttered. The sense of the period of the play doesn't come through, nor does the kind of different place Donegal occupies in Ireland and the lives and psyche of its citizens. I'm not too sure, either, that the play is the best illustration of the American Character as shown by an aspiring immigrant  or a connection with the American Family.


Return to Home Page

  • Road (National) Tour Review Index
  • New York City & Environs Theatre Review Index
  • Berkshire, Massachusetts Theatre Review Index
  • Boston Area Theatre Review Index
  • Florida Theatre Review Index
  • London Theatre Review Index
  • Minneapolis/St. Paul (Twin Cities) Theatre Review Index
  • Philadelphia & Environs Theatre Review Index
  • San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Review Index
  • Seattle Area Theatre Review Index
  • Toronto, Ontario (Canada) Index