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A CurtainUp Review
The Faith Healer
By Elyse Sommer
Ralph Fiennes, Ian McDiarmid, Cherry Jones (Photographer: Joan Marcus)
There's much of the exhilaration of Frank Hardy's most satisfying experiences as an itinerant faith healer in watching and listening to Ralph Fiennes, Cherry Jones and Ian McDiarmid deliver Brian Friel's separate but connected, Rashomon-like monologues. The complex psyches and relationships unraveled in each segment don't add up to an easy or fun two and a half hours -- but these magnificent actors render Friel's often lyrical text with such depth and nuance that any reservations about watching a quadruple dose of solo performances rolled into one will dissolve for anyone who appreciates strong acting and and language.
Friel's more than twenty-year-old play is of course an exemplary model of story telling rather than action that has influenced younger playwrights like Conor McPherson. The subtly connected monologues add up to a fascinating exploration of the meaning and use of a special creative gift, the demons often driving a man so gifted and the addictive pull he exerts on others. The man in this case is Frank Hardy, who during his one-night visits to small Welch and Scottish villages, lays hands on "the crippled, the deaf and the barren" and whose demons drive him to fictionalizing facts and abuse alcohol.
As the title character, Frank gets two monologues which serve as the bookends for his wife Grace's and his manager Teddy's view of his reality. Grace reminisces about their life together -- what she gave up to be with Frank, and the eventual trauma that led to the breakdown from which she is recovering as she talks. Teddy, the manager, provides his own take on both Frank and Grace.
Before I go further, let me dissuade you from any preconception that because the actors are monologists who never interact that you'll be overdosing on monologues. Instead, you're likely to find, as I did, that in the The Faith Healer not seeing the actors on stage together until their amply deserved curtain call, intensified one of the play's themes-- that no matter how closely connected our lives are, our memories of and feelings about that shared reality are forever separate and apart.
The current stellar production of Friel's twenty-year-old play began its life at Dublin's Gate Theatre and was reviewed four years ago by our Lizzie Loveridge during its run at London's Almeida Theater (see link below). The move to Broadway still has Jonathan Kent in the director's chair, assuredly unobtrusive as ever. One of the three original actors, Ian McDiarmid, is on hand to reprise his bravura role as Teddy, the itinerant faith healer's Cockney manager who, despite proclaiming himself a firm believer in the "never the twain shall meet" rule about business and friendship, obviously has a deep attachment to both Frank (Raslph Fiennes) and his wife Grace (Cherry Jones). But even Teddy's comic relief turn takes on a darker hue with his account of the birth of Grace's dead baby.
I don't know if McDiarmid is better than ever, but I do know that his performance is just about as good as it can get. It brings some welcome humor to this basically dark story. However, with the dulcet-voiced Ralph Fiennes and the effervescent Cherry Jones as Frank and Grace, this is not a case of McDiarmid stealing the show, but one leg in an all-around splendid three-legged acting stool.
Fiennes brings engaging touches of humor to his opening monologue and his voice just rolls over you like a gorgeous piece of music. He manages to fully draw us into Frank's uncertainty about his healing powers and his very Irish sense of being adrift without a home, a familiar Friel concern). Frank's hypnotic chanting of the places he's visited (Abergower, Aberfeldy, Inverary . . . Dunvegan, Dunblane) is repeated by Grace. Unlike other Americans in New York productions of British transfers Cherry Jones is a major asset. She has a way of transforming her pretty, all-American face to reflect a multitude of emotions, tointermittently look young or old, to reflect joy as well as agonizing pain.
Like the British production's designer, Jonathan Fensom has opted for spareness. The dominating props are a banner hung up in each village hall to advertise Frank's appearances and a photo-montaged curtain that slides open and shut in between each segment --both very effective. Hopefully, enough theater goers who appreciate rich acting and language will make this longer run more successful than many of Frank's one night stands.
For more background notes and plot details, see our review of The Faith Healer in London
For reviews of other Friel plays, see Lincoln Center Summer Festival and Give Me Your Answer DO!
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