The Irish Heritage Theatre, a new company, is introducing itself to the city with Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! The play speaks to the Irish heritage of the city, about a young man who decides to leave his small town in Ireland to immigrate to Philadelphia. It's a story of excitement and fear that must have been repeated thousands and thousands of times all over Ireland.
Friel is the Big Daddy of 20th-century Irish drama, and 1964's Philadelphia was his first success. He is best known for Dancing at Lughnasa, although his most thrilling plays, to my mind, are Translations and Faith Healer. Philadelphia is not a great play, and its deficiencies — overlong, sentimental, obvious — are highlighted by this brave but amateurish production under John Gallagher's direction.
It is courageous of a new company to present a play requiring a cast of 14, and to set it on a tiny stage (the Walnut Street Theatre's Studio 5) where they barely have room to move (with some music unfortunately leaking through the walls, to compete with the quiet dialogue).
The drama's central device is that the protagonist is split between the Gar (Dan McGlaughlin) who is the public person, visible to all the people in his world, and the private Gar (Steve Medvidick), who speaks his inner thoughts and feelings. Together they represent the young man's internal struggle, his yearning to connect with his father, his profound boredom with his predictable town and its people, and both his irritation and his kindness.
McGlaughlin, as the public Gar, is the standout in the cast — perhaps because he's a good actor, and perhaps because the role calls for restraint, so he delivers a performance that is genuinely nuanced and subtle. All of the other characters are pretty much clichés, variations on the stage Irishman, and played as such: the cold, old befuddled father (John Cannon), the failed poet (Steve Gulick), the colleen (Kirsten Quinn) Gar is desperately in love with, the blathering aunt (Mary Pat Walsh), the crass, big-talking drunks (Thomas-Robert Irvin, Eric Thompson, William Crawford), the overworked maid (Kate Danaher).
There's very little in this production of the tasty language that makes Irish drama so appealing, and Philadelphia, Here I Come! offers little understanding of the complex politics and passions that leaving your native land entails.
Philadelphia, Here I Come!
Presented by Irish Heritage Theatre at the Walnut Street Theatre's Studio 5, Ninth and Walnut Streets, through May 20. Tickets $15-$25. Information: www.irishheritagetheatre.com