Play links public with private, past with future

Theater Column

May 10, 2007|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

It's a case of fact mirroring fiction. Philadelphia, Here I Come! - a play about a young Irish man leaving home to embark on a career in America - was also the work that established the career of its Irish author, Brian Friel.

The 1964 play is hardly a conventional coming-of-age piece, however. The protagonist, Gar O'Donnell, is portrayed by two actors, one depicting "Gar Public" and the other, "Gar Private." In the production at Performance Workshop Theatre, Tom Byrne and Kyle Riley make the distinction easy to discern.

As Private Gar - the character's inner voice - Riley is mischievous, youthful, uninhibited. He teases his old dad and the beloved housekeeper (though no one is aware of him except Byrne's character). In contrast, as Public Gar, Byrne is nervous, ill at ease and still a bit uncertain about facing the unknown in America. Riley and Byrne work well together, whether Private Gar is bucking up Public Gar when the latter loses his nerve or whether they're indulging in fantasies of success in the United States, pretending to be everything from a cowboy to a symphony conductor.

The production is co-directed by Irish-born husband and wife Sam and Joan McCready, who also adeptly portray Gar's emotionally stunted father and the warm-hearted housekeeper. Their direction captures the stultifying sameness of Ballybeg, the fictitious village where Friel set many of his subsequent plays, including the 1992 Tony Award winner Dancing at Lughnasa.

There's no future for Gar in this backward burg, where his true love married a man of greater means and where his shopkeeper father is bogged down in a routine that includes denying his son affection or even the courtesy of engaging in conversation. And in Performance Workshop's tight confines, the claustrophobia of the place is palpable.

The play and the production are not without minor flaws. Imaginative as the split-personality device may be, it's also too bald a vehicle for exposition. And some of the supporting actors are not up to the level of the leads or are simply miscast. For example, Gar's former schoolmaster looks far too young to have been a contemporary of Gar's deceased mother, as indicated in the script.

Yet a lovely wistfulness permeates Philadelphia, Here I Come! "Keep the camera whirring, for this is a film you'll run over and over again," Private Gar says in his final speech to his public self. Friel's play projects that film, and it's filled with gentle longing for the past and yearning for a future brimming with possibility.

Philadelphia, Here I Come! runs through June 3 at the Performance Workshop Theatre, 28 E. Ostend St. Tickets are $20. Call 410-659-7830.

A new reign

The crown is being passed to a new king in Camelot. Michael York, who has been playing King Arthur in the touring musical, will step off the throne this summer. Lou Diamond Phillips takes over the role in September. Phillips, who will play the lead when the Lerner and Loewe classic comes to the Hippodrome Theatre from March 25 to April 6, received a Tony nomination for his portrayal of another monarch, the King of Siam, in the 1996 Broadway revival of The King and I. His movie credits include La Bamba, Stand and Deliver and Courage Under Fire.

Contemporary theater

Hot topics including Mideast politics and the treatment of sex offenders will be explored in the four plays that make up this summer's Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Describing the lineup as a reflection of "where we are in the world today," producing director Ed Herendeen said he is "more and more convinced that producing art, producing theater, especially in these times, is becoming an act of social activism."

The plays, performed in rotating repertory, include:

1001. Herendeen describes this play as a retelling of the Arabian Nights that "morphs with a contemporary love story in post-9/11 Manhattan between an Arab woman and a Jewish man." The script by Jason Grote received a reading in Center Stage's First Look series last season.

My Name Is Rachel Corrie. Edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner from the writings of a young American activist killed in Gaza, this play has provoked controversy - and cancellations - from Miami to Toronto. "I don't believe, to the core of my being, that this is an anti-Israel play. If it's a controversial play it's because it's anti-violence," says Herendeen.

Lonesome Hollow. The festival's fifth play by Lee Blessing, this world premiere is set in an American penal colony whose population consists solely of male sex offenders.

The Pursuit of Happiness. This middle-class comedy is the second play in Richard Dresser's trilogy about happiness in America. Committed to staging all three parts of the trilogy, each of which deals with a different social class, the festival produced the blue-collar installment Augusta last season.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival takes place July 6 to 29. Subscriptions range from $100 to $120. Call 800-999-2283 or go to

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