I am delighted to have been asked to direct ‘Philadelphia Here I Come’ for the Insight Spring production. It is a play I have always loved, written by one of our finest playwrights. In it we meet Gar O’Donnell on the eve of his departure for Philadelphia to start a new life there. Gar is the son of S.B. O Donnell local storekeeper, a man of few words and guarded emotions. The play tracks Gar’s last night in the O’Donnell household in Ballybeg, with occasional flashback scenes filling us in on how we got to this point.
It is essentially a play about failure to communicate. Father and son each have a deep need for the affection and affirmation of the other but each appear incapable of expressing it. Friel explores this theme of non-communication through their relationship and more generally through relationships in the community in which they find themselves. It is a closed society, set in its ways, unresponsive to and unwelcoming of change, a society in which safe, predictable, conventional forms of communication mask an inability to engage at the intimate level of feelings and emotions. This repressive backdrop gives rise to the other great theme explored, that of escape; escape from the repressive constraints of this very traditional family in this very traditional small town.
Sounds bleak? Well not really. This is a play that bristles with energy. The ground-breaking device of having one character represented by two actors, (Gar Public and Gar Private), only one of whom can be seen by the other characters on stage, allows Brian Friel free rein to poke fun at the ‘zipped-up’ nature of communication in the O’Donnell household. This he does, unmercifully, in the internal dialogues of the two Gars giving us many wonderfully comic moments and keeping the whole thing moving apace.
But make no mistake, ultimately this is a very sad play. Gar assumes that S.B. cares nothing for him since he does not articulate such feelings. However, in his conversations with the housekeeper, Madge, it becomes very clear that S.B. keeps a store of fond and precious memories of his son growing up, despite his inability to express such feelings. Likewise, whilst Gar, himself, longs for some demonstration of affection from his father we only know this because we are privy to the internal dialogue he conducts with his alter ego Gar Private. In his public persona Gar is just as formal and uncommunicative with S.B. as the latter is with him. Their tentative and ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to claw their way towards some form of meaningful communication makes this play’s heart-breaking and compelling at the same time. I’m really looking forward to doing it.
Note re Auditions: Dates for auditions are posted on this website. Would love to see a good turnout. With regard to accents, I would like a northern tinge to the whole thing but I am not hung up on it and, if you are in doubt, be assured that I think it more important to read the character than the accent. That said there has to be a rural tinge to the whole thing. It is set in small town, Ireland after all.
Madge – Housekeeper
Madge has been housekeeper to the O’Donnell family for many years. She is more than just a servant however. She has a genuine affection for Gar, for whom she is almost a surrogate mother, and even for S.B. O’Donnell. She is the source of whatever little the warmth and tenderness there is in this male dominated non-communicative household. Although Gar and S.B. O’Donnell struggle to communicate with each other they each confide in Madge and it is only through his conversations with Madge that we realise the love that S.B. has for his son.
Gar O’Donnell – Son of the house. A single character played by two actors.
Gar Public: represents the ‘public’ face of this son and heir of shopkeeper S.B. O’Donnell. He is basically unfulfilled and feels stifled by the very traditional small-town community in which he finds himself. With little prospect of being allowed put his imprint on his father’s business, and his love life recently collapsed, Gar has decided to emigrate to Philadelphia where he will live with his aunt Liz Sweeney and her husband. His non-communicative relationship with S.B. is at the very heart of the play as is the tension between his desire to escape father/Ballybeg and his strong bond of affection for both. He is quite a shy young man, somewhat diffident, inarticulate when it comes to expressing emotions, but also possessed of a sense of humour as evidenced in his relations with Madge and internal dialogue with Gar Private.
Note – Gar Public is seen by, and interacts with, all the other actors on stage. He also engages in dialogue with his private persona and alter ego (represented by Gar Private) but cannot actually see him and shouldn’t, therefore, look directly at him at any stage.
Gar Private: is, as the name suggests, the private persona or alter ego of Gar O’Donnell. Friel uses Gar Private to articulate the repressed emotions and aspirations of public Gar. He is a more adventurous, funnier, waspish version of Gar, criticising and parodying his father’s behaviour and making him the subject of humorous comments. His role is not exclusively that of satirical commentary however. It is through this character that Friel is able to represent Gar’s yearning for a loving relationship with his father and with Katie Doogan. He sometimes acts as Gar’s conscience.
Note – Although Gar Public can hear him, only the audience can both see and hear him, he is neither visible, nor audible to any of the other actors on stage.
S.B. O’Donnell – Gar’s father
S.B. O’Donnell, widower, storekeeper, was already 40 when he married Gar’s mother, Maire – she was 19. If Gar is in his mid-twenties now S.B. would be in his late 60s. Maire died in childbirth and it seems S. B. never really recovered from the loss. A man of few words, apparently unable to express emotions, especially affection, he was singularly unsuited to rearing a small boy and left that task, mostly, to housekeeper Madge, while he buried himself in his business. His communications with Gar are all formaland routine, sometimes gruff, mostly to do with the running of the store. There is a suggestion that he is miserly though it may just be that he is so out of touch with things that he does not appreciate the value of money or the cost of living for a young man. His and Gar’s failure to communicate is essentially what the play is about and the revelation that,in fact, both he and Gar yearn for the affection and recognition of the other (revealed in conversations with Madge and Gar Private respectively) gives the play it’s heart-breaking appeal.
Kate Doogan / Mrs. King – Daughter of Senator Doogan
Kate is a young woman from a wealthy Ballybeg family. Her father, Senator Doogan, has ambitions for a match for her with a young doctor returning to the locality. As Gar’s girlfriend Kate would certainlyhave agreed to marry him but he allows himself to be intimidated by her fatherand lacks the courage to ask for her hand. She gives up on him and marries Dr. Francis King instead but it is clear that she retains an affection for Gar.
Senator Doogan – Local bigwig
Senator Doogan has plans for Kate that do not include a pairing with the son of a local shopkeeper though he is at pains to point out that it will be ‘Kate’s choice’. He seems like a man used to getting his way. He only appears once in the play but his conversation with Gar re Kate’s future seems to me a master class in manipulation.
Master Boyle – Local teacher
Gar’s old teacher. Strong suggestion that he was in love with Gar’s mother, Maire but was passed over, by her, for S.B. O’Donnell. Perhaps because of his fondness for drink? Or maybe that was a response to her rejection of him. Either way he certainly has a drink problem now, which he tries to disguise though it is common knowledge in Ballybeg. He is a failed (?) poet clearly unhappy in his professional life as a teacher and talks bravely of moving to the USA to take up an important job offer – something Gar knows he will never do. He has a fondness for Gar and comes to the house to say goodbye which he does awkwardly, making him a present of a book of poetry he has written. Although he has come to say goodbye to Gar, he talks mostly about himself and ends up cadging money from him. There is a kind of arrogance to him also. He assures Gar that he will do well in the US being ‘of average intelligence’.
Lizzy Sweeney – Gar’s aunt
Gar’s aunt, his mother’s sister and the nearest thing he has to a connection with her. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband Con. It is clear that they have made a good life for themselves in the US. They’ve done well financially and have many friends there. But they have never had children. And Lizzy would desperately have wanted children. Now in her older years, she feels the loss more acutely and she has been trying to persuade Gar to move to the US where she can mother him /make him the beneficiary of all they have worked for. She is garrulous and feisty and somewhat tipsy when we meet her in the play. She does not really listen to others and does not like to be interrupted. Gar finds her vulgar and is horrified at her attempting to smother him with love and kisses.
Con Sweeney – Lizzy’s husband
A quite, considered man. Doesn’t get much of a word in with Lizzy anyway. I think he’d be quite happy to have Gar come to America to live with them but he is more realistic in his appreciation of what such a move might mean for him. Tries to rein Lizzy in from time to time but with little success.
Ben Burton – Friend of the Sweeneys
An American who befriended the Sweeneys when they first arrived in America and helped them get on their feet. He has remained a family friend, clearly a close one since he accompanies them on their trip home to Ireland. He’s a mild-mannered Episcopalian, who, like her husband, Lizzy constantly talks over.
Ned – ‘Ringleader’ of ‘the boys’
The ‘leader’ of ‘the boys’, who have come to the house to say goodbye to Gar only at Madge’s request. He is loud and brash, obsessed with ‘women’ and football. Like many of the characters in this play he is incapable of displays of affection, and covers up this inadequacy with boasting and bluster. The stories he tells of his heroic exploits on the football field or on the dance floor are not true, however, and Gar Private gives us the real versions which reveal him as fundamentally insecure and lacking in confidence in either area. He is redeemed somewhat in our eyes by his final gesture of taking off his belt, ‘the one with the big buckle’ to give to Gar so that he can ward off any ‘scuts’ that might want to attack him in Philadelphia.
Tom – One of ‘the boys’
Weak. Hero worships Ned, whose stories he confirms even though he knows them to be so much bluster. Looking for some reflected glory perhaps? He does not really engage with Gar at any point, being wholly focussed on pleasing his ‘leader’. Doesn’t even say goodbye to Gar as he leaves.
Joe – One of ‘the boys’
The lowest status member of the pack. He looks up to and is hugely influenced by both Ned and Tom. But he is the only one of them who appears to be anxious to say a proper goodbye to Gar. He tries on a number of occasions to bring the conversation around to Gar’s departure, but the other ‘boys’ inevitably turn it back to football and ‘women’. His is the nearest we get to an expression of regret at Gar’s leaving.
Canon Mick O Byrne – The parish priest
Canon in parish and manager of the school. Despite his ‘hail fellow, well met’ demeanour in the O’Donnell’s kitchen he is clearly not a man to be crossed as he demonstrates in his dealings with Master Boyle. He comes to play draughts with S.B. every evening and the unvarying nature of their exchanges suggest a well worn ritual that has gone on for many years. It is part of what Gar wants to escape. There is something very self-satisfied and a little annoying about the Canon’s forced joviality which might make us wary of him. “Hee, hee, hee. ‘You wait’, says she, ‘till the rosary’s said and the kettle is on”