Friel tragicomedy opens at Sarasota's Asolo Rep

Asolo Rep stages the play that put the great Irish playwright on the map

mclear@bradenton.comJanuary 9, 2014 

These days, Brian Friel is widely regarded as one of the greatest contemporary playwrights, and one of the greatest Irish playwrights of all time. His work is compared to that of Anton Chekov, John Synge and William Butler Yeats.

But in 1964 he was a virtual unknown, at least in America. Then "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" hit Broadway.

"It's a remarkable achievement in theater art," said Frank Galati. "It was the first play by Brain Friel to gain an audience outside of Ireland. It put him on the map."

Galati is directing a new production of "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" for the Asolo Repertory Theatre. It opens Friday -- the day after Friel's 85th birthday -- and runs in repertory for three months.

"It was quite a sensation," Galati said of that Broadway production. "It won the Tony Award for Best Play."

The story of "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" -- which is generally described as a tragicomedy -- revolves around a young Irish man named Gar who's about to leave his home, the fictional town of Ballybeg, to move to America. (Many of Friel's plays, including his best known work, "Dancing at Lughnasa," are set in that same fictional town in the north of Ireland.) The play takes place over 12 hours, starting on the night before his move.

Gar reviews his life in Ballybeg wistfully, partly through flashbacks, but at he same time he's thrilled about moving to Philadelphia.

"He's coming to America, with all the hopes and promises that implies," Galati said. "His America is the America of Hollywood and Broadway and cowboys and Indians."

Friel's script, Galati said, summons the experiences of a lot of Irish immigrants to the United States. But it reflects the immigrant experience in general, and even the bittersweet universal experience of young people starting life on their own, apart from family and friends.

One of Friel's dramatic innovations that helped make "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" the talk of the 1964 theater season is the use of two actors to play Gar. One is the Public Gar, the person everyone sees and knows, and the Private Gar, the inner being that only Gar himself (and the audience) can see.

The 2013-14 Asolo Rep season is the second in Asolo Rep's project titled "The American Character." The project features "select productions that explore, embody, and attempt to define what it truly means to be an American," a company statement said.

Even though it's set in Ireland, Galati said that's one of the things "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" does best, Galati said.

"It's the perfect play for this project," he said.

Details: Jan. 7-April 12 at the Mertz Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: Various. Tickets: $33-$61. Information: 941-351-8000, www.asolorep.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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