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Breaking Silence

Irish Playwright Gamely Sidesteps the Problem of Dramatizing the Uncommunicative Family

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 5/16/2007

Philadelphia, Here I Come!

By Brian Friel

At the Performance Workshop Theatre through June 3

It's a real-life tragedy when members of a family don't communicate with one another, when silences yawn between perfunctory catch phrases. But how do you turn such a situation into a stage tragedy? How do you write dialogue for people who don't talk?

In 1964's Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Brian Friel's second, breakthrough production, the Irish playwright allowed you to hear what wasn't being said. In the flawed but ultimately successful production now at the Performance Workshop Theatre, you can grasp the tragedy of the family that doesn't talk, for they never solve their problems, even though you understand what they would say if they could.

In the show's opening scene, a young man named Gareth O'Donnell (Tom Byrne) is bouncing off the walls of a tiny cottage in the small village of Ballybeg in west Ireland's County Donegal. In about 15 hours he is scheduled to leave for America, leaving behind Kate, the sweetheart who married someone else; Madge, the frumpy housekeeper who raised him; and S.B., the stony old widower who's not only Gar's father but also his employer. Wearing a neat tie beneath a sleeveless sweater, Gar sings the vaudeville song of the title and flops down on his bed.

Suddenly another young man (Kyle Riley) with a neat tie beneath a sleeveless sweater plops down next to him and points out that Gar will soon be flying in a plane over Ireland. Perhaps, this new person suggests, the plane will have a machine-gun nest and Gar can perforate all the women, priests, fishermen, and children who failed to appreciate him while he was still on the island.

It's soon apparent that this new person is Gar's inner self, the self that says all the things the outer person can't. Nor is he content merely to voice the public Gar's thoughts; the private Gar cajoles, needles, and browbeats his alter ego to say those things out loud so the other characters onstage--and not just the audience--might hear them. The public Gar clenches his teeth, turns red in the face, and breaks out in sweat, but in the end he's scared more of the people around him than he is of his own bullying conscience.

Poor Gar has to fight his war on two fronts. He needs to still his reproachful inner self and he wants some token of acceptance from his father and the handful of other people in his life. But Gar doesn't have many weapons at his disposal. He dropped out of university to come home and work in his father's dry-goods store. His father paid him so little that kissable Kate declined to marry him. He never knew his mother and he barely knows the closed-mouth Madge.

The entire play takes place in the two cramped rooms of S.B.'s cottage--Gar's bedroom with its narrow, iron-frame bed and the dining room with its battered wooden table--and in the tiny basement space at the Performance Workshop Theatre, those rooms are so cramped and close that it's as if you're sitting in a corner chair.

Sam McCready, the former UMBC theater professor, and his wife, Joan McCready, the former Belfast actress, not only co-directed the play but also star as S.B. and Madge respectively. The couple are brilliant in their supporting roles, but they made some directing decisions that don't work.

For one, the balding Byrne is too old for Gar. This is particularly obvious when he plays against the obviously younger Chris Yeiser, who is supposed to be Gar's Uncle Con as well as Gar's former high school teacher. Byrne also has problems with transitions; he will burst into tears or a swagger so abruptly that it's clear that he's responding to direction and not internal motivation.

By contrast, Riley--who also looks much younger than Byrne--is terrific as the private Gar. Not only is he a compelling storyteller when he's divulging his alter ego's secrets, but he's also an intimidating bully.

The show gets off to a wobbly start, especially when Riley pushes Byrne into stumbling fantasies and memories. But the production slowly rights itself and gathers its strength as the hours before Gar's departure tick away. By the time the play reaches the final scene, the last-chance midnight gathering of Gar, S.B., and Madge at the dining table, Philadelphia, Here I Come! generates a dramatic electricity that wipes away its earlier mistakes. To watch the squirming son, the stony shopkeeper, and the dour maid make halfhearted attempts to reach out across the small table is to register tragedy at its sharpest.

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