Themes of family tend to lie at the heart of classic Irish plays.
So, it’s no surprise that the city’s premier Irish theater company, which works to conserve productions tracing back to the Emerald Isle, emulates family values itself. Such bonds are especially evident in its latest spring show – both on and off the stage.
Through March 23, Irish Heritage Theatre, a Philadelphia-based troupe founded in 2010, is presenting “Da” by Hugh Leonard at Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Pl. Set in the 1940s, the production, surrounding a man’s complicated relationship with his family in the wake of his father’s death, is helping to be made possible by a couple of South Philly residents.
While the two board members are working behind the scenes of this show, they’ve had opportunities to seize the stage themselves, as Irish Heritage Theatre fosters all facets of their team’s talent – from writing grants to mastering monologues.
“Just having the chance to perform and being able to perform with the Irish Heritage Theatre – they’re not only giving us a chance to do what we love to do, but they’re also enriching our skill set by helping us learn dialects,” said Whitman resident and actor Connie Martinez who also works the box office and writes grants for the company. “…The company is just full of such wonderful people that even if you’re not performing, you still want to be involved, and you still want to help make the show successful. So, that’s what’s going to keep me around.”
Martinez connected with the company through her own theatrical studies at Community College of Philadelphia along with Melrose resident David Kuong, who has been involved with Irish Heritage Theatre for more than five years.
Working for the company, he says, exposes him to all angles of theater.
“We’re heavily involved in so many things – backstage, onstage, what not,” he said. “There’s so many things that we’re learning in a quick span of time, and that’s what I appreciate a lot.”
For company and board members, Irish theater in particular is an enthralling vehicle toward tackling various components of production, notably compelling storytelling.
Martinez and Kuong say what attracts them to classic Irish theater is the immense depths of relatability existing in complex characters.
With familial subjects at its roots, the company says anyone – no matter their nationality – will find truth in classic Irish theater.
“It often strikes me as I’m looking at this play and reading this play that, that Irish aside, there is no one who has ever had a relationship with a parent or with a child who will not find things to identify with in this play,” said John Cannon, cofounder, vice president and treasurer of IHT who also plays the title role of Da. “There’s a lot of things in it that are specifically Irish that might not fit in other kinds of family settings, but there’s often a lot of things that are more universal.”
These universal emotions are particularly elevated in the company’s first run of “Da,” which ran on Broadway during the late 1970s.
Whether resentment, jealousy or love, the play reminds audiences of the feelings that are often expressed – or suppressed – in many homes.
“Da,” like many of the company’s shows, not only examines family dynamics, as the main character of Charlie experiences flashbacks of his father after returning home, but lends an illustration to a particular point in Irish history.
“I think something that’s cool about what (Irish Heritage Theatre) does is show us all different parts of Irish history,” said Kelly Filios, who plays Mary Tate. “And Hugh Leonard was a really prolific playwright, and his works are still being done in Ireland and, so, it’s kind of cool to do one of his plays and get a glimpse of what that period is.”
With limited Irish-centric works being produced in the Philadelphia theater community, “Da” continues IHT’s ultimate mission to preserve and present these classic shows.
Along with timeless plays, the company plans to shift some of its productions toward more modern Irish-American stories, such as works by prolific playwright Eugene O’Neill.
In an era of avant-garde and experimental shows, the company notices audiences’ avid reception to traditional stories.
“Something that’s very important to (the company) is just keeping Irish heritage alive in theater,” said Lee Stover, who plays Oliver “…The characters are so complex and the stories are so complex and important and vital, and for some reason, Irish theater, a lot of the times, gets lost in the shuffle, but the stories are just as important as anything else going on in the city. So, I think, what they’re doing is very important.”
Info: To purchase tickets or seek showtimes, visit www.irishheritagetheatre.org/current-production/.