In his current Broadway hit, "Dancing at Lughnasa," Irish playwright Brian Friel writes about memories, self-imposed exile, family relations and the search for truth. The same themes surfaced in "Philadelphia, Here I Come!," the play that established Friel's career back in 1966.
With fortuitous timing, the Spotlighters has opened a production of the latter nearly concurrent with the news that "Lughnasa" has won the Outer Critics Circle and New York Drama Critics Circle awards as well as being nominated for more Tony Awards than any other drama this season.
However, the Spotlighters' production is notable for more than this happy coincidence. Skillfully and sensitively directed by William Kamberger Jr., it is an admirably smooth rendition of a script filled with potentially saccharine themes and tricky staging demands.
The tricky aspect results from Friel's device of having two actors simultaneously portray the protagonist; one plays "Public Gar O'Donnell," as he is described in the program, and the other, "Private Gar." Private Gar exists primarily to reveal the character's inner thoughts -- not only to the audience, but on several heated occasions to Public Gar as well.
The chief conflict between them concerns Gar's impending move to the United States, after spending his first 25 years in the Irish village of Ballybeg. The two Gars share memories, argue over motivations and daydream.
Bill Chappelle is particularly effective as truth-telling Private Gar, who is not only wiser than his public persona, but also more playful. Besides having a convincing brogue, Chappelle adopts a Western accent when talking about the good ole U.S. of A., affects snooty British tones when pretending to be a classical music deejay, and then switches to a French accent to give a comic fashion-show commentary on his father's slovenly apparel.
Though little effort has been made to cast similar physical types as the two Gars, there is a palpable connection between them. David Flury is thoroughly credible as the more ill-at-ease Public Gar -- a young man eager but anxious about the prospect of his new life.
Other well-wrought portrayals are delivered by Babs Dentz as the O'Donnells' maternal housekeeper, and Frank Greene -- a Richard Harris look-alike -- in the largely unsympathetic role of Gar's cold father. Only Carol McLaughlin, as Gar's transplanted American aunt, seems forced.
Kamberger's clever direction makes the most of the limited scenery on the Spotlighters' limited stage. For instance, a kitchen table becomes an airplane when the two Gars imagine the upcoming flight to America, and later it serves as the moor where Gar courted his first love.
In "Dancing at Lughnasa," Friel celebrates memories. Nearly three decades earlier, in "Philadelphia, Here I Come!," he questioned their value, veracity -- and potential dangers. In a sense, the earlier premise is more challenging, and the Spotlighters' production goes a long way toward meeting that challenge.
'Philadelphia, Here I Come!'
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.; matinees Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Through May 31.
Where: Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St.
Tickets: $8 and $9.
Call: (410) 752-1225.