Quietly Riotous

Philadelphia, Here I Come!


She Stoops to Conquer

Guthrie Theater

           IN ADDITION TO drowning the plants twice a week and removing the trash when the fruit flies start swarming, one of my domestic duties involves caring for a friendly bird we call Salvador. The ugliest part of this chore involves cleaning his cage. Before lining it with back issues of City Pages--they do fit perfectly between the cage and its removable plastic poop pan--I swallow hard and re-read the theater review in each issue. I can assure you that the act of paying fealty to a bird encourages unsparing self-evaluation. And so it recently came to my attention, while Salvador gnawed my collar, that several months have passed since I last wrote a predominantly positive review. And though the reviews, good and bad alike, will come to the same messy end, I regret the fact.

           It is an unwonted pleasure, then, to try my hand at gushing, if also a difficult one; for so enrapturing is Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come!, and so convincing its Guthrie production, as to have rendered me practically mute. My program marginalia--where snitty and petty observations evolve into artistic beefs--is a rare mix of incoherent effusion and white space.

           Set in 1963, in the fictional small town of Balleybeg, Ireland (think Winesburg, Ohio), Philadelphia, Here I Come! tells the story of its title, following one Gareth (Gar) O'Donnell through his last night before departure. While Gareth mourns his mother, who died soon after childbirth (it is his maternal aunt and her modern American conveniences that lure him stateside), just as enigmatic is his reserved father, S.B. O'Donnell, a shop owner. As it has always been between fathers and sons, this pair has their bond in misunderstanding and uncanny resemblance. All of which seems the making of a very quiet and mirthless evening of theater.

           But while Gar broods through his closing hours in the old country, encountering a drunken schoolmaster, a girlfriend who married another man, and various insensate mates, his repressed emotions are given voice by a doppelganger who shadows him on the stage. More than an artistic caprice, Friel's "private" Gar, played by a separate actor, is the unfettered essence of this frustrated and lonely young man. It is the private Gar of adolescent indulgence that upbraids S.B. O'Donnell to great comic effect, hypothesizing about "ScrewBalls's" own invisible inner life. Through this pairing of unshared sentiment and unheard retorts, Friel establishes himself as a master poet of the unspoken.

           Two New York imports, Lee Mark Nelson and Rainn Wilson, play the public and private Gars; the production succeeds boldly on their honest and fluent performances. Both actors ably internalize Joe Dowling's physically dynamic direction, allowing a nuanced series of gestures and movements to appear organic. Equally commendable is Donal Donnelly as S.B. O'Donnell, who, in a curious life-cycle for an actor, originated the role of the private Gar in the play's first production 30 years ago. This time around, Donnelly explores the vicissitudes of meekness. ScrewBalls's feelings for Gar are buried beneath mountains of immutable silence and habit; the few words that escape him are cliches about his weariness. In the one scene where father and son threaten a rapprochement, Donnelly's lips can only move in a shambling stammer. The effect is that of a car spinning its wheels in the sand while sinking ever deeper. (Opening night, this affecting scene was underscored with a chorus of digital watches and coughing; what is wrong with these boobs?)

           I have been wary of the naturalistic direction the Guthrie seems to be taking this season: Can an artistic agenda that might be accurately reduced to the motto "Good plays, done well" capture the current imagination? How much room is there between a traditional aesthetic and a reactionary one? Do Minneapolitans need another Park Square Theatre? Put another way: What will happen when the moneyed subscribers start dying off? And but two plays into the Dowling administration, I am undergoing something of a conversion. Dowling reports having watched Philadelphia a dozen times as a teenager, so great was Friel's dramatic spell. Yes.

           Running in repertory with Philadelphia is an energetic staging of Oliver Goldsmith's 18th century comedy She Stoops to Conquer. As a general rule, comic pap like this is more amusing than actually funny (although I should confess that I laugh more at political documentaries than anything else). This tale of a piquant, rural family and a pair of visiting London suitors is smartly acted and briskly performed; in particular, Christopher Evan Welsh deserves accolades for his portrayal of a poltroonish son. The only social commentary I can glean, though, is that it's easier to bed a poor girl than a rich one. As Woody Allen would have it, comedy bends and tragedy breaks; here, nothing is risked and little is gained. CP

           Philadelphia, Here I Come! and She Stoops to Conquer run through September 22 at the Guthrie Theater; call 377-2224.

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