Leaving The Homeland Irish Director Draws On Heritage To Direct Villanova Play

Posted: July 14, 1986

Philadelphia, Here I Come! at the Villanova Summer Theater is not just a play about a young Irishman preparing to immigrate to Philadelphia in the early 1960s. Young Gar O'Donnell's doubts, fears and high hopes have been shared in some way by many other emigrants about to leave their native lands.

"The play has a lot to say about many people who emigrated, including the Irish, Italians (and other Europeans)," said Paul Moore, 28, a black-haired, blue-eyed native of Ireland who is making a return visit after two years to Villanova this summer as a guest director from Dublin's Abbey Theater, the National Theater of the Republic of Ireland.

Villanova Summer Theater is presenting Moore's production of Philadelphia, Here I Come! Wednesday through July 20 and July 22-26 as part of the theater's season titled "The Magic of Philadelphia." Other plays in the series included a production of 1776 that ended Saturday and The Philadelphia Story that is scheduled to begin July 30.

The play, written by Irishman Brian Friel, is set in Ballybeg, a town in the northern section of the Republic of Ireland, in 1962. It is the night before Gareth "Gar" O'Donnell emigrates from Ireland to live with relatives in Philadelphia in that "profane, irreligious pagan country of gross materialism."

"It is quite a popular play in Ireland," Moore explained. "I think it strikes quite a cord in the Irish people because of the emigration from Ireland during the last 100 years. I think the saying goes, 'Ireland's greatest export was its people.'

"Friel is one who tries to give some sort of understanding to the maelstrom that Ireland is going through. It is far from a healthy society," he said. "The play is a great way of dealing with the politics, the human beings and what effects their lifestyles."

Moore was invited two years ago by a Villanova professor who met him at the Abbey Theater to direct Translations, also written by Friel.

In addition to doing the play, Moore got one other bonus: He met his wife, Jean Henefer, 26, a native of Havertown who portrayed the part of Maire in Translations. They were married in April and live in Dublin.

Joanne Rotte, chairwoman of the Villanova University Theater Department, said Moore was invited back after the run of Translations was so successful. ''Philadelphia, Here I Come! fit in beautifully with the season," she said. "It seemed appropriate that this talented director should come back and direct another of Friel's plays."

"His style is very careful in terms of script analysis, which is to try very hard to understand what the playwright is proposing thematically. It is an attempt to be faithful to the vision of the playwright."

But to understand Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Moore said he first had to give his actors and actresses an idea of what Ireland is really like. He reeled off statistics as if they were the stats of a favorite sports team:

Last year, there was mass emigration from Ireland, which has a population of about 3 million, to the United States and England. "Thirty-five thousand is the unofficial figure," he said.

About 230,000 people are unemployed. The country has the highest birth rate in Europe and the highest population of people under 30 years of age.

Because most people are under age 18 or over age 50 and don't work, there is a small sector of the work force supporting the rest of the population.

Moore said Friel's plays tried to explain the Irish psyche to the Irish and to examine the combined effects of former British rule, the English language usurping the Gaelic, the famine of the 1840s and mass emigration in the last century, in addition to the implications of independent government on the country's future.

J. Michael Curley, 24, of Bryn Mawr, who portrays the often manic and amusing "private persona" of Gar, said Moore spent a great deal of time telling him and his fellow actors about Ireland.

"Because of what he knows about the country, he makes a sincere effort to get us to know about the country. He gave us a sense of the climate and the effect it has on people," Curley said.

"You have got to look at the politics where the country is coming from," Moore added. "That is the benefit of having someone from the country direct the play. When you live there, you don't really think about it. It's like saying, 'What is it like to be an American?' It's great to get the opportunity like this. It made me think about what the state of Ireland really is."

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