“Philadelphia, Here I Come!” at the Asolo Repertory Theatre beautifully captured the bleak surroundings of Gar O’Donnell, who feels trapped by his small fictional village of Ballybeg in Ireland. The entire play is set during Gar’s last night at home before he sets out on a transatlantic journey to the United States.
This quant immigration tale is made far more intriguing by the presence of “Private Gar” (Bernard Balbot) who interacts throughout the play with “Public Gar,” (Christian Conn) a reserved young man who keeps his emotions bottled up. Gar’s alter ego, who wants to keep him on track for his impending journey, particularly when the young man becomes wistful about the world he is leaving behind, frequently chides public Gar.
He has an icy relationship with his father, S.B. O’Donnell (Douglas Jones), owner of the local general store, whom private Gar calls “Screwballs.” The two do a quiet dance around one another throughout the length of the play, avoiding any pleasantries or emotion about the fact that Gar is planning to move to the States for good. The only warm relationship in the play exists between Gar and the family housekeeper Madge (Peggy Roeder), who has essentially raised him following his mother’s tragic death three days after his birth.
Gar longs to connect with family, although his attempts are largely aborted missions. He has a passionate love for the Senator’s daughter Kate Doogan (Amanda Lynn Mullen) and can hardly wait to marry her, until her father convinces him that she is meant to be with another. Gar’s aunt Lizzie (Anne-Marie Cussen) on his mother’s side comes to visit him on the day of his beloved Kate’s wedding to invite him to live with her and her husband in Philadelphia. She wants to develop a relationship with Gar, as he is the only child among all of her sisters who have died, and she has been unable to conceive. Although Private Gar calls out “don’t hug me yet, I’m not ready…” the hug between aunt and nephew provides a glimmer of hope in a play bereft of affection.
Although the play is a largely melancholy tale, the promise of America looms large in every scene. Gar’s school teacher (and it is suggested potentially his real father who was in love with his mother too), all of his boyhood friends long to see the huge buildings and streets in America and have the chance to earn their fortune in the States, but only Gar has the courage to make the journey. Because as Americans we are well aware of what is likely in store for Gar, we know that he will probably embrace his new life. But the play captures that static moment in time before an adventure is about to begin and does so with tremendous insight into the American character. There are only a few show times left to catch “Philadelphia Here I Come!” Go to www.asolorep.org for tickets.