It was in 1992 that Irish playwright Brian Friel swept the Tony Awards (and virtually every other theater competition) with his family drama Dancing With Lughnasa. It might have been some patrons’ introduction to his work — described as Irish Chekhov — yet Friel had been crafting plays for decades before, including his landmark 1964 work Philadelphia, Here I Come! Arís Theatre, the new kids on the block among local theater companies, is currently giving the rarely done play a solid staging, capped by a crackling performance by Kyle Brumley.
Now playing through October 5 at Arís Theatre’s venue in the Georgia Public Broadcasting Building, Philadelphia is a drama with some black, poignant humor.
Gareth (Gar) O’Donnell is a young man in his mid-20s living in Ireland who feels a change is in order. He is leaving his home in fictional Ballybeg for the unending possibilities that America has to offer him. Gar is brought to life by two characters, Gar Public (Benjamin Davis) — the one people interact with — and Gar Private (Brumley), who is the character’s conscience.
Gar really wants to leave his home although he questions the real reasons why. In flashbacks he remembers the young woman he hoped to marry, Kate Doogan (Stephanie Friedman), and a visit from his Aunt Lizzy (Mary Seville) that changed his life.
Essentially, the play is his last few hours, the night before and the morning of his departure. The central relationship here is between Gar and his remote father S.B., aka Screwballs (Theo Harness). Gar works at his father’s store and there’s no real difference between their dynamics at work and home. Their scenes together are funny and bittersweet — a father and son who can’t connect, sitting at a small table with conversations that are the same night after night, year after year. (Gar Private mimics his father’s mannerisms masterfully). S.B. clearly does seem to care for his son, yet he doesn’t reach out or express any emotion.
Arís is a small troupe that is looking to pick up the void left by the late, wonderful Theatre Gael, which produced splendid local Irish fare. The troupe came together last year, and this spring the company staged its first show, the excellently acted but odd black comedy The New Electric Ballroom. Considering the deep talent level of the artistic troupe, it didn’t showcase the company the way it should have. This production, however, does a much better job.
Friel’s play, being mounted here as part of the 50th anniversary of its first staging, is a jewel — quiet and observant and character-driven. As directed by Robert Shaw-Smith, Philadelphia has an effective if overlong first act, hovering around the hour and a half mark. Some of it feels unnecessary, but Act II — only 40 minutes — zips by more efficiently. Luckily the cast is committed and believable. Shaw-Smith’s impressive ensemble is an asset. The wonderful character actor Harness brings a quietness and reserve to his role of the father, while Lynne Ashe’s housekeeper Madge is the type who observes and knows more than she is supposed to. As Gar’s love interest, Friedman is lovely — this is a complete departure from her work in the recent The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown at Aurora Theatre.
Ultimately, though, Philadelphia, Here I Come! is only as potent as its Gars, and in this case it succeeds. Shaw-Smith handles the dynamic of the two onstage Gars. Davis is likable as the public persona, with a layer of vulnerability. Yet he (and everyone else) pales next to Brumley. One of ArtsATL’s 30 Under 30 last year, Brumley is the most fascinating presence here. The actor nearly stole Equus last year from a seasoned cast at Actor’s Express, and his work here is even richer, more confident. It’s a showy, magnetic piece of acting.
Arís’ run of this is a quick one — it opened September 25 and closes this weekend — but it’s worth your time and a signal of the kind of classy work the company seems capable of.