The central conflict of Brian Friel's play Philadelphia, Here I Come! takes place between the young man Gar O'Donnell's public and private personas. So where does the character of Aunt Lizzy fit in? I would argue that Aunt Lizzy fulfills three main purposes: she drives the plot, she serves as a contrast to Gar's father;, and she stands as an interesting character study in her own right.
First, Aunt Lizzy helps drive the plot, for she is the primary reason Gar chooses to go to Philadelphia in the first place. We meet Lizzy in a flashback as Gar recalls her visit. Lizzy, who has no children of her own, longs to have Gar come to live with her and her husband. They have a job already lined up for him, and Lizzy is quick to tell the young man all about the nice set-up they have.
We have this ground-floor apartment, see, and a car that's air-conditioned, and colour TV, and this big collection of all the Irish records you ever heard.
She goes on and on until she bursts into tears and laments that “we have no one to share it with us.” Gar is, after all, her sister's boy and her only nephew, and she is willing to coax him in any way she can, even including bribery. How could this not turn a young man's head, especially a young man who is unhappy in love and feels stuck working for his father? Without Lizzy's influence (and her ecstatic response at Gar's agreement), Gar may never have even thought about going to Philadelphia.
Second, Aunt Lizzy stands in sharp contrast to Gar's father. Highly emotional and quick to express both grief and joy, Lizzy is the opposite of S. B. O'Donnell, who rarely shows his feelings at all but merely plods along through life, seemingly indifferent to his son. This isn't to say that S. B. doesn't feel emotions; he merely doesn't show them. But Gar doesn't understand the distinction and therefore doubts that his father cares for him at all. Lizzy, however, clearly does, and Gar responds to her animated emotions.
Third, Aunt Lizzy is simply an interesting character in her own right. She's chatty and slightly tipsy, yet she attempts to display a dignity she clearly lacks. “Would you please desist from bustin' in on me?” she tells her husband, hilariously blending “desist” and “bustin'” in the same sentence. As we said before, Lizzy is emotional, and her feelings move as quickly as her conversation as she jumps from topic to topic. Yet she is sincere in all her emotions, mourning her dead sisters one moment and the next nearly jumping for joy when Gar agrees to go to Philadelphia. Lizzy is probably more insecure in herself than anything else, and that accounts for both her somewhat erratic dynamism and her inclination toward alcohol.
Yes, Aunt Lizzy is a character to be reckoned with in Philadelphia, Here I Come!, and she merits careful attention and reflection.