I attended the Penang opening of “Philadelphia, Here I Come” last night at the Penang Performing Arts Centre. The play was written by Irish playwright Brian Friel but adapted to the local Malaysian culture by the professionals at The Actor’s Studio.
This is a production I really wanted to to like, but unfortunately I was ultimately disappointed in several aspects of the overall performance and writing.
First, I not a big fan of adapting a work, whether novel or play, and making it more culturally appropriate for the audience or time period. (This needs to be a completely different post in itself sometime in the future.) The play was drastically re-written which, in my view, cannot help but diminish the impact and immediacy of the author’s intent. Yes, their are universal truths to be displayed, and they were displayed last night, but I couldn’t help but think that some of the character development, emotion, and overall meaning was lacking because of this re-write. Could it be that I’m not Malaysian and part of it was lost on me? Perhaps. But let the original stand or fall on its own two feet, the way the author intended.
Second, the performance didn’t grab me like I hoped it would. I had trouble developing an emotional connection to the young man and his alter ego as he thought through his life on the night before he leaves Malaysia to take up work in Philadelphia. The heart of the story centers around the protagonist’s relationship with his stoic father. He wants to hear some tenderness, some love from his father before he leaves. He wants to hear his father ask him to stay. He wants to know that he will be missed and that he is loved.
This type of dramatic emotion and heartache should cry out from the stage, leaving the audience feeling the pain and the emotional strain from the moment. Unfortunately, I just didn’t feel it.
The second act tried hard to build up the emotional impact with a good, understated performance by Patrick Teoh as the young man’s father, but the ending of the play was very unsatisfying. I couldn’t believe it was the ending – but I knew in my heart it was. There was no crescendo, no ultimate climax that made the young man confront his father and tell him what needed to be said. It left two many unanswered questions, leaving the audience unsure if more was coming or not. Then came curtain call.
There was so much tenderness and emotional possibilities hanging on the sidelines of the story which were not utilized – and that, for me, is the shame of the matter.