A.J. Shively and David McElwee in Irish Rep’s 2024 production of PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME!

Photo: Jeremy Daniel/Jeremy Daniel

In making their way through the plays of Brian Friel this season, the Irish Rep has been going backwards. Their first two productions, Translations (1980) and Aristocrats (1979), revisited the start of a high tide in Friel’s writing, a wave that would carry him through to the Tony- and Olivier-winning Dancing at Lughnasa in 1990. With the five indelible sisters at its center and its elegant interweaving of Friel’s deep preoccupations—memory, loss of home and innocence, and Ireland’s inextricable knot of relationships with its own history, obsolescence, and progress—Lughnasa is a perennial favorite for revival. It’s getting a reading at the theater this coming week, but on the main stage is a much less frequently seen show, from 1964: Philadelphia, Here I Come! launched the playwright’s career when he was 35. The play—about a young man’s imminent move to the United States—was also Friel’s first outing on Broadway, where (shocker) the critics were divided. Walter Kerr called it a “warming fire” — “funny,” “prickly,” and “most affecting.” Stanley Kauffman found it naïve, a play of “considerable pleasantness, little poetry and insufficient power.”

They were both right. Philadelphia is a perceptibly early work — it feels young and, in both appealing and distracting ways, a bit artless. What the long throw of time makes clear is that its writer was distinctive, compelling, and humane, an expansive soul with sharp, clear eyes and restless feet, looking for his way of being in the world. Friel’s wanderlust was internal: Unlike so many Irish writers, he lived and died in the country of his birth, but he saw and understood the yearning for escape, for severing the umbilical cord that threatened to become a noose. That tug-of-war over the Irish soul—home, away—is the thrust of Philadelphia, whose young protagonist, Gareth O’Donnell, is so divided that he needs two actors to embody him.

First, there’s “Gar Public” (David McElwee), the man, Friel’s stage directions tell us, “that people see, talk to, [and] talk about”; and then there’s “Gar Private” (A.J. Shively), “the unseen man, the man within, the conscience, the alter ego.” When we first meet public Gar—it’s what everybody calls him, and it rhymes with “star”—he comes bounding into the space, yodeling the title’s riff on “California, Here I Come” and bothering his father’s housekeeper, Madge (Terry Donnelly, understated and excellent), by attempting to waltz her around the kitchen. Private Gar doesn’t appear till the character is alone in his own room; then, out pops Shively from behind the bed, the inner monologue embodied — part angel, part devil, part child, part toon. He zings between references and impressions like an Animaniac; he says the derisive, explosive things public Gar never would; he’s soft and he’s mean, inconsistent and charming, a creature of pure impulse. It really is his play.

Yet for all that, it must be a weirdly lonely part. Friel specifies that no one, even public Gar, ever looks at him (“One cannot look at one’s alter ego”). With a dancer’s toes-to-fingertips energy, Shively is playing the ghost in the machine, and though the device can sometimes feel thin—like an enthusiastic writing exercise pushed past its capacity—the play is also using it to get at something genuinely thorny and meaningful. At its heart, just as much as it’s an examination of the urge toward flight, Philadelphia, Here I Come! is a rebuke of Irish masculinity. All Gar—both halves, the whole man—really wants is some tiny demonstration of love from his father, S.B. O’Donnell (Ciarán O’Reilly, who also directs the show and who’s been co-running the Irish Rep with Charlotte Moore since they founded the theater in 1988). Private Gar calls the taciturn old shopkeeper “Screwballs” and taunts him mercilessly, anticipating his every mundane scrap of conversation and pleading with him to “make one unpredictable remark.” But public Gar is as surly and awkward with his father as the old man is toward him: Despite his manic inner life, he’s clearly osmosed an external character that’s either flippant and breezy—as with Madge or with his buddies—or tongue-tied, sullen, and suffocating under the weight of repression and self-doubt. “When the boss was his age,” Madge reflects on father and son, “he was the very same as him … eejitin’ about and actin’ the clown … And when he’s the age the boss is now, he’ll turn out just the same.”

Under O’Reilly’s steady direction, Philadelphia can sometimes feel like the dramatic equivalent of “old Screwballs” — it’s straightforward and decent and, theatrically, not given to unpredictability. Still, some of the production’s strongest moments are the play’s sketches of its menfolk. It’s in these scenes where Friel’s observational powers most fully emerge, his deftness with people who live right on the edge of caricature and yet, in startling lucid glimpses, can sense their own absurdity and helplessness. There’s something edging near to Beckett in a game of checkers between Screwballs and a local clergyman (Ciaran Byrne); and when “the boys” come over, brown paper bag of Guinness bottles in tow, to bid Gar a rowdy farewell before his transatlantic flight the next morning, O’Reilly’s actors find the existential emptiness underneath the rambunctiousness and smutty talk. Ned (James Russell), the alpha, is all defensive swagger, while Tom (Tim Palmer) is his winking, guffawing yes-man, and Joe (Emmet Earl Smith) is the baby-faced kid along for the ride. None of them, Gar included, actually know how to talk to one other.

Though even his private self might not be able to articulate it, this crushing cycle—strutting boy into stuck, stolid man—is what Gar’s running from. “It’s a bloody quagmire, a backwater, a dead-end!” he shouts about his hometown of Ballybeg to Katie Doogan, the one that got away (Clare O’Malley). “And everybody in it goes crazy sooner or later!” Friel created the fictional Ballybeg—its name comes from the Irish for “little town”—as both hearthstone and stone around the neck of his characters. As a lifelong resident, Gar knows what it feels like to love a place and be drowning in it, to love a parent and loathe him — to go to sleep fearing that the quicksand is already up to your chin and tomorrow it might be too late. But what would ultimately earn Friel his reputation as the Irish Chekhov—and what O’Reilly’s ensemble softly illuminates—is the playwright’s recognition of the both-and in every relationship and every human being. “They’re louts, ignorant bloody louts, and you’ve always known it!” shouts private Gar, almost in tears, after his friends make their uncomfortable exit. But, he adds, “there was fun and there was laughing … and even now, even so soon, it is being distilled of all its coarseness; and what’s left is going to be precious, precious gold.”

Likewise, the golden glow of Gar’s grand escape has plenty of complex tarnish to it when one really starts to look at it, and even Gar knows it. He’s headed to live with his aunt Lizzy (Deirdre Madigan, making the very most of her single featured scene) and uncle Con (Patrick Fitzgerald), who’ve been expatriates since the late ’30s. Lizzy’s accent is almost gone and she’s all loud-laughing, bourbon-drinking animation and opinion — so colorful! So American! (“Her vulgarity,” private Gar shivers.) But part of her desperation to take Gar in has to do with her own inability to have children, and part of Gar’s desperation to be taken in comes from the absence of his mother, who died three days after he was born and whose shimmering image he obsesses over without ever having known the person. There is no clean motion forwards without a tug from behind — it’s always home, away; both, and. Though Philadelphia, Here I Come! has a one-trick quality to it that evidences Friel’s inexperience, the play also shows him starting to unpack a set of career-driving ideas. For Friel’s characters, the past and the future exist behind veils that obscure the un-beautiful, and this beauty somehow both causes our present suffering and gives us the ability to bear it.

Philadelphia, Here I Come! is at the Irish Repertory Theatre through May 5.

Becoming Brian Friel: Philadelphia, Here I Come!