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“Philadelphia, Here I Come!” reviewed

Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre is doing a wise service this season, offering up stagings of four works by the late, great Irish playwright Brian Friel. Currently appearing on the company’s Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage is a crackling revival of Friel’s coming-of-age tale Philadelphia, Here I Come! Helmed by Irish Rep’s producing director Ciarán O’Reilly (who is also featured in the cast), this production honors the text while putting a spotlight on themes of Irish identity.

O’Reilly, who staged a prior revival of the drama in 2005 and starred in a 1990 production, shares a personal background with the play’s protagonist, the 25-year-old Gar, who weighs the benefits of leaving his hometown in Ireland to start fresh in America (O’Reilly also left home for the U.S. as a young person). Friel presents Gar through two roles, his exterior self (played here by David McElwee) and interior persona (Tony nominee A.J. Shively, last seen donning an Irish accent in Classic Stage’s moving revival of A Man of No Importance). The two actors team to create a seamless character, stilted on the outside but pushing from within to bust out of himself and thrive.

This mounting features O’Reilly in the role of Gar’s father, from whom Gar desperately tries to withdraw affection and care. Much of Gar’s lost sense of himself, and his father’s lack of attention to Gar’s struggles, is connected to the absence of Gar’s mother, Maire, who died just three days after he was born. The strongest connector he has to his mother is his aunt Lizzy, portrayed by Deirdre Madigan with overflowing warmth and emotion.

The production’s design team (scenery by Charlie Corcoran, lighting by Michael Gottlieb, costumes by Orla Long, and sound by M. Florian Staab) sets the scene, softly supporting the storytelling while keeping the actors in the audience’s focus. Ryan Rumery’s original music provides a thoughtful soundtrack for reflection time between scenes.

But truly, at this revival’s heart is a paired tour de force: the complementary performances of McElwee and Shively who, almost invisibly, unveil the conflicting selves of a young man who battles his instincts to simply trust himself. McElwee’s Gar is frozen, locked in a false comfort of the person he is told he should be, while Shively’s is frenetic energy, unproven possibility, and unbridled joy. Together, the two actors shape a clear, complex human for whom the audience can feel deeply.

Thanks to the guidance of O’Reilly, an expert Friel interpreter, Irish Rep’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! is giving 2024 theatergoers a chance to embrace one of the most timeless works in his canon.