The Irish Repertory Theatre’s 35th Season Celebration
Running through May 5, 2024
The Irish Repertory Theatre is celebrating its 35th season by presenting three plays by Brian Friel, Translations, Aristocrats, and Philadelphia, Here I Come! running through May 5, 2024.
Brian Friel was a dramatist and writer often referred to as the ‘Irish Chekhov’ for his plays exploring social and political life in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Over the course of a career spanning more than sixty years, Friel examined the tangled relationships between nationality, history, and narrative, with large, intergenerational casts of characters. His work was influenced by his upbringing in the rural north of Ireland, with more than a dozen of Friel’s works set in the fictional Donegal town of Ballybeg (translating to “small town”).
Friel was born in Killyclogher near Omagh, County Tyrone, to Sean Friel, a primary school principal, and Mary McLoone, a postmistress. Friel spent half of his childhood in his father’s home city of Derry before attending St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth as a seminarian — he was never ordained, but graduated with a BA in 1948. In 1954, Friel married Anne Morrison, with whom he raised four daughters and a son. Alongside his work as a teacher, Friel began his career as a writer of short fiction, publishing his first short story in an Irish literary magazine before having work published in The New Yorker. By 1960, he was able to leave his teaching post to work full-time as a writer.
Friel was given the opportunity to hone his skills as a dramatist when, in 1963, Tyrone Guthrie invited him to observe rehearsals in the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, an experience which Friel described as “enabling.” Shortly after, Friel wrote his first major success, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, which takes place the evening before a young man emigrates to the United States from Ballybeg. Initially produced at the Gaiety Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival, the play came to Broadway in 1966, where it received six Tony Award nominations including Best Play and Best Director.
Friel’s momentum as a playwright coincided with The Troubles in Northern Ireland, a period of violent sectarian conflict between nationalists, who wanted Northern Ireland to be part of the Republic of Ireland, and unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. In 1972, Friel was a member of the crowd present at the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry as he marched in protest of internment without trial. British soldiers opened fire on protesters, killing at least thirteen civilians and injuring several more. The incident — and its cover-up — inspired Friel’s 1973 play The Freedom of the City, which led Friel to meet actor Stephen Rea.
In 1980, Friel and Rea founded Field Day Theatre Company, and its inaugural production of Friel’s new play Translations was performed in the Guildhall in Derry. Field Day began publishing pamphlets — and, later, anthologies — on a wide variety of historical, cultural, and academic subjects. At this point in his career, Friel began adapting the works of Anton Chekhov — including Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Bear — a practice he would continue for more than two decades.
Perhaps Friel’s best-known work, Dancing at Lughnasa, premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 1990, and shortly thereafter transferred to the National Theatre in London, winning the Olivier Award for Play of the Year. Dancing at Lughnasa ran for more than a year on Broadway and received three Tony Awards including Best Play. A film version was released in 1998 starring Meryl Streep and directed by Pat O’Connor.
In 2006, Friel was elected to the position of Saoi of the Aosdána, the highest honor bestowed by the Irish Association of Artists, and in 2009 Queen’s University, Belfast, inaugurated the Brian Friel Theatre and Centre for Theatre Research. Friel died on October 2, 2015.
Running through December 31, 2023
Irish Repertory Theatre will produce its debut production of Brian Friel’s Translations as the first installment of The Friel Project. In 1833 Baile Beag, County Donegal, a hedge schoolmaster gave his Irish-speaking students a classical education, versing them in Ancient Greek and Latin—but not in English. Meanwhile, the British Army arrives to create a new map of Ireland that will “standardize” the Irish place names to English. When the schoolmaster’s son returns home from Dublin to serve as the Army’s translator, the fate of the Irish locals and their native tongue is cast into uncertainty. The play is a captivating exploration of the power of language to kindle romance, ignite tensions, and inflame the human heart’s yearning to understand.
Translations was first presented by Field Day Theatre Company at the Guildhall in Derry, in 1980.
January 11, 2024 – March 3, 2024
Set in Ballybeg Hall in County Donegal, Brian Friel’s Chekhovian masterpiece chronicles the decaying home of District Justice O’Donnell, where the family congregate for a wedding, but stay to attend a funeral. Friel’s tale of three sisters and their ‘eccentric’ brother reveals the way in which the ache of one family becomes the microcosm for the ache of a society.
Aristocrats was first produced in March 1979 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
Irish Repertory Theatre hosted a revival of Aristocrats in 2009, directed by Charlotte Moore. The production featured John Keating, Geddeth Smith, Lynn Hawley, Orlagh Cassidy, and Laura Odeh, and was described as a “first-rate revival” by The New York Times, and praised as a “top-flight ensemble” by The New York Daily News.
Philadelphia, Here I Come
March 16, 2024 – May 5, 2024
Set in 1962, this classic bittersweet comedy revolves around the young Gar O’Donnell on the eve of his departure from Ireland to America. Gar’s heartache from losing his girlfriend to a successful businessman propels him to accept an invitation to go and live with an aunt in Philadelphia. Despite the wild fantasies of what life in America might hold, and his yearning to escape the tedium of small-town Ballybeg, a kind word from his taciturn father could change his mind.
Philadelphia, Here I Come! was Friel’s first major success, premiering in 1964 at the Gaiety Theatre Dublin, and transferring to Broadway two years later.
In 2005, Ciarán O’Reilly directed Philadelphia, Here I Come! at Irish Rep. The show featured Michael Fitzgerald, James Kennedy, Helena Carroll, and Edwin C. Owens, and was described by The New York Times as a “spirited production […] skillfully brought to life.”
Philadelphia, Here I Come! was previously produced at Irish Rep in 1990 with a cast that included Frank McCourt, Pauline Flanagan, and Brían F. O’Byrne.
Purchase tickets for all three productions and receive a 10% discount. Visit the Irish Repertory Theatre to learn more.