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A CurtainUp Review
See the new feature just added to Curtainup's Author's Album about Brian Friel by Elyse Sommer
What a joy and pleasure it is to experience Molly Sweeney's first Off Broadway revival at the Irish Repertory Theatre and be able to say that the lovely text could not have been placed in more capable and attentive hands than those of director Charlotte Moore. And be assured that the three actors assigned to it — Jonathan Hogan, Geraldine Hughes and Ciaran O'Reilly — are quite superb. (The play's first New York production was directed by the author for the Roundabout Theater company in 1996, with Jason Robards in the role of Dr. Rice, Alfred Molina, as Frank and Catherine Byrne, as Molly).
Theater-goers who have followed the Friel canon since Philadelphia Here I Come! opened in New York in 1964, know to expect a good yarn laced with a text that can be as flinty as it can be eloquent. Encased completely in the lustrous dramatic language for which Friel is renowned, Molly Sweeney is not a play in the traditional sense, but rather takes the form of more formalized dramatic prose. It is structured in three interweaving monologues, with each of its three characters setting out to tell the (their) story through personal agendas, accounts, reactions, and responses.
Notwithstanding those of us who share memories of Jonathan Hogan as a member of the long-departed (and missed) Circle Repertory Company as well as for his many subsequent and lauded performances on and off Broadway, (As Is, The Fifth of July, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial) he is at the top of his game as Dr. Rice, a divorced, whiskey-drinking, eye surgeon. Logan, with his face, body and countenance reflecting a life of regrets and sustained dissipation, is splendid as the once highly regarded surgeon turned idler who becomes motivated into believing that he can restore the eyesight of a 40 year-old woman who has been blind since infancy.
Instructed and schooled since childhood solely by her caring father, Molly has learned to perceive and experience life in a wondrously articulate and sensory way. Coded by sound and touch, Molly's richly textured world finds an affecting spokeswoman in the performance of Geraldine Hughes who won critical acclaim for her solo play Belfast Blues in 2005, and here seems fired by a graceful compliance and a spirited grit as a woman whose post-operative life, instead of being illumined, becomes increasingly limiting and destructive. Being personable, having friends and being gainfully employed, she was never was completely convinced that seeing was what she needed. But she complied with the wishes of the persuasive optimistic surgeon and those of Frank, her aggressively insistent husband.
After all of his previous schemes and endeavors have backfired, Frank, played to the delightful hilt by Ciaran O'Reilly, puts his misguided energy into the restoration and, indeed, exploitation of Molly's eyesight. However, Molly will not let herself be exploited by an attentive husband cum would-be-adventurer/entrepreneur whose misguided quests seem as foolish as those of a modern day Don Quixote. O'Reilly, his round face flushed and his eyes rarely without a twinkle, also provides most of the play's amusing digressions, including one about his unfortunate business venture with Iranian goats. Guided by an inner strength, Molly's eventual withdrawal into the comfort of her own world following the purportedly successful surgery is contrasted against the pathetic follies of the husband as well as by the memory-jogged musings of the surgeon, both spiritually weaker by far than Molly.
The down-to-earth spirituality of Molly Sweeney is in some respects a counter-point to the heightened metaphysical aspects of Faith Healer. Perhaps Molly Sweeney is another way for Friel to deal abstractly with the sanctity and the personalized specificity of the world that each of us creates. In Molly Sweeney we are as invested in Dr. Rice's need for professional approval and personal renewal as in the previously well-adjusted Molly's apprehensiveness about seeing — , as well as in the extenuating motives of her devoted husband Frank.
Although static in the sense that the play's three characters never confront each other but rather state their cases mostly at or near their respective chairs and then only speaking in the past tense, Molly Sweeney nevertheless resonates with character, temperament and turbulence. Staged simply and effectively by Moore and in the grandest/familiar tradition of Irish story-telling, it hasn't a rigid bone in its body. Although it may strike some as a non-play, this is first-person dramatic story-telling at its very best.
Even with only three chairs and three large-paned windows (provided by set designer James Morgan,) we have no trouble at all seeing more than meets the eyes in this bracingly lyrical play.
For more about Brian Friel's life and work, and links to plays by him we've reviewed see our just added addion on him as part of our authors' album series: Brian Friel Backgrounder