BRAVERY IS one of the greatest attributes an actor can claim.

Playing a reviled person (e.g. Kevin Bacon as the ex-con child molester in "The Woodsman") is generally hailed within the show-business community. But Thursday at the Merriam Theater, Philadelphians will get a glimpse of true theatrical valor when "I Love Lucy Live on Stage" opens a four-night run.

From here, it seems portraying Lucy Ricardo - arguably the most beloved and iconic female character of all time in any medium - is a no-win proposition. The legendary Lucille Ball's decadelong portrayal of the wacky, larger-than-life wife of Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo (played, of course, by Ball's real-life hubby, Desi Arnaz), is as ingrained in the American psyche as Washington Crossing the Delaware or the events of Nov. 22, 1963.

Which makes it seem misguided, maybe foolish, for any actress to attempt to play Lucy.

That makes Sirena Irwin about as brave as it gets. She has inhabited the revered character since "I Love Lucy Live on Stage" debuted some 18 months ago. Its current national tour wraps up with the Merriam dates.

"I've always been one to like a good challenge, and this is about the biggest challenge I think I've been handed," she said during a recent phone call from her Boston hotel.

It wasn't just that playing Lucy was tough. She went into the role lacking the grounding in "I Love Lucy" history so many Americans, regardless of age, possess.

"I'm kind of an oddball because I didn't grow up with a TV," offered Irwin, whose nomadic childhood was occasioned by the circumstances of her mother, a classical musician, and father, a physicist who, for a chunk of Irwin's childhood, assumed the role of "hippie traveler."

"And when I was on my own, I didn't have the tradition of watching TV, so I came to it very late, as late as about the time the [stage] show started up. I of course knew 'Lucy' the icon. I of course knew 'I Love Lucy.' I'd probably seen it a handful of times. But I was definitely not as well-versed on the show as I should have been. Thinking back on it, it's shame on me."

Irwin added that, given the chance to audition, "I got into full gear as this character as best I could. And once I booked the part, it was full steam ahead trying to watch as many episodes as I could and read as many books about the process of doing the show as I could.

"Even to this day, I'm constantly watching [the show], and the books that I'm currently reading are all 'Lucy'-related."

Nonetheless, when she was offered the job, she had second thoughts. "I did try to talk [producer-director] Rick Sparks out of casting me when he called. I said, 'Maybe you'd be better off with an impersonator, someone who's been living with this role, this character, Lucy Ricardo, for a long time.'

"But he assured me they really wanted actors in these parts, that they wanted to capture the essence of these characters but didn't want impersonations."

"I Love Lucy Live on Stage" is more than just a clone (scriptwise and scenerywise) of two episodes of the legendary sitcom: "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined" and "The Benefit." The premise is that the audience is at Desilu Studios in Hollywood watching the actual segments being filmed. As such, theatergoers also get a "behind-the-scenes" experience of the show.

Irwin said her work as Lucy Ricardo hasn't just provided a steady paycheck for the past year and a half; it's also given her a deep appreciation for the actress whose shoes she fills eight times a week.

"Today," she reasoned, "we find people want to play comedy very natural, very real. What I love about Lucy Ricardo and what Lucille Ball did, was she did both.

"She had the natural, grounded, sort of truthful relationship-based character, but then when she wants to get into the show [as in "The Benefit"], or being obsessed about celebrities, it's just whatever it takes to get there, she'll do it. I like that there's both in what she brought."

Merriam Theater, Broad and Spruce streets, 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 27-28, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Dec. 29, $75-$25, 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.
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