Laugh ‘til you turn green

Steph­en Med­vidick, Kirsten Quinn and Dan McGlaugh­lin re­hearse a scene from Phil­adelphia, Here I Come! MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

— 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 ir­ish­her­it­a­, e-mail to IHT­now@com­ or call 215-575-9529.

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