— Performers with the Irish Heritage Theatre are serious about their ethnicity. But they also like to have a good time on the stage.
Being Irish is a popular pastime in Philadelphia, and not just during mid-March at the city’s countless shamrock-themed bars, according to founders of the Irish Heritage Theatre.
While the green beer and off-color T-shirts seen at many St. Patrick’s Day events represent the height of Irish enlightenment to many uninformed and indifferent revelers, literature may stand as the Irish people’s greatest contribution to world culture through writers such as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and William Butler Yeats, whose collective influence transcends poetry, prose and theater.
“We want to keep our heritage alive and we want to bring something to you that’s free and funny and that you’ll enjoy,” said John Gallagher, the Irish Heritage Theatre board president and de facto artistic director.
The company will stage its inaugural production, a revival of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!, from May 5 through 20 at Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 5, 825 Walnut St.
To be clear in light of Gallagher’s assessment of Irish Heritage’s mission, admission to the show is not free of charge. Tickets cost $25 each, with discounted seats available for seniors ($20), students ($15) and groups of 10 or more.
However, the performances are, in fact, meant to be “free” in the sense of a uniquely expressive spirit and sensibility generally embodied by Irish and Irish-Americans.
“I love the Irish sensibility. It’s a mix of happiness and anguish and a little of everything,” said Steve Medvidick, a cast member in Here I Come.
“It’s the sense of humor, even in dire situations,” said Kate Danaher, a company co-founder and resident actor.
The company plans to focus its efforts on historical works by Irish and Irish-American playwrights and views itself as a successor to the Irish Repertory Theatre of Philadelphia.
Irish Repertory produced about a half-dozen shows from 2003 through ’06 at Plays & Players Theatre in Center City and Allen’s Lane Theater in Mt. Airy. Gallagher, Danaher and John Cannon worked together with that company and enjoyed their experience together.
But Irish Repertory went on hiatus several years ago, according to Gallagher.
“I said, ‘We don’t want to lose this because we had a very good cast of people,’” the director recalled.
“I had worked with (Irish Repertory) for a period of years and did some very respectable reproductions,” said Cannon. “But they dried up, so there was a niche. There was an opening for traditional Irish and Irish-American theater.”
New York’s off-Broadway Irish Repertory Theatre, founded in 1988, produces a half-dozen or more shows annually. Philadelphia’s Inis Nua Theatre Company has been producing new plays from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales since 2004, but the new Irish Heritage Theatre has a different focus. Here I Come, for example, dates to the mid-1960s.
“That’s as modern as we’ll get,” Gallagher said.
The Irish Heritage founders eventually recruited Northeast Philadelphia native Kirsten Quinn as a fourth board member and resident actor, along with Armen Pandola as production director. They began by staging Gallagher’s original one-act sketch Mister Dooley at Your Service privately for ethnic-oriented groups throughout the Delaware Valley.
“We traveled all around Philadelphia and the suburbs, going to Irish organizations. There are a lot of Irish people and a lot of people who are interested in being Irish,” Gallagher said.
The title character harkens to a familiar figure in many Philly neighborhoods.
“He’s a bartender and he has his words of wisdom for all the people who come to the bar and they make fun of his quips,” Quinn said.
Typically of many focal characters in Irish literature, Dooley’s quirky colloquialisms resonate with prevailing truths.
“If you don’t catch the language, you don’t catch the Irish,” Gallagher said. “Part of the language is attitude and part of the attitude is sarcastic. But the funny line will be insightful and useful if you don’t block it out.”
Written in 1962 and ’63 by Friel, who has been called the “greatest living English-language dramatist,” Philadelphia, Here I Come! is the comically tragic story of young Irishman Gareth O’Donnell, who is about to embark on a permanent move to America, leaving behind his enigmatic and distant father. The script features two “Gars,” one that reflects his public persona and another that embodies his private thoughts and feelings.
The small company has no shortage of academic, professional and personal experience on which to rely.
Gallagher was raised by his Irish grandfather in East Germantown from ages 3 to 16. He’s been directing plays for some 55 years. Cannon sits on the board of century-old Plays and Players Theater and has been involved in the theater for more than a half-century.
Danaher’s father was born in Ireland and she studied there. She holds a doctorate and has taught Irish literature. She is an experienced actor, Irish “storyteller” and fiddle player.
Dan McGlaughlin and Medvidick play the two “Gars” in Here I Come. McGlaughlin lived in Ireland and once worked off-stage at a town theater in Galway. Medvidick claims partial Irish lineage, not unlike many Philadelphia Irish with mixed backgrounds.
The Walnut’s Studio 5 figures to be a good fit for their needs. With just over 50 seats, it can accommodate groups but is intimate enough for smallish crowds. Company leaders hope local Irish organizations will consider the show for cultural outings. There will be 14 performances, making it eligible for Barrymore Award consideration.
“We’re hoping that these groups we’ve been visiting with Mr. Dooley will support it,” Gallagher said. ••
For information about Irish Heritage Theatre and Philadelphia, Here I Come!, visit irishheritagetheatre.com, e-mail to IHTnow@comcast.net or call 215-575-9529.