Friday, February 11, 2011

Seeing Clearly


Hogan, Hughes and O'Reilly in Molly Sweeney (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Molly Sweeney
Written by Brian Friel

Directed by Charlotte Moore
Starring Jonathan Hogan, Geraldine Hughes, Ciaran O’Reilly

Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Performances through March 13, 2011

Like Faith Healer—on Broadway awhile back with Ralph Fiennes and Cherry Jones—Brian Friel's lyrical masterpiece Molly Sweeney transforms that most static of art forms, the stage monologue, into fiercely compelling drama. Its three characters tell their stories apart from and overlapping one another, butting heads with and jutting up against the others in a way that not provides fascinating food for thought. It’s that rare play that is sensible, effortless and artful, with no condescension, sentimentality or fake melodrama in its piercingly and humanly truthful story.

Living in Friel’s fictional Ballybeg, the title character is a bright, enormously appealing 41-year-old woman who has been blind since she was 10 months old. She meets and marries Frank, a local unemployed laborer whose latest personal crusade is to help Molly regain her sight. They visit an eye specialist, Mr. Rice, a transplanted American and former hotshot in the field, who takes her case to try and jump-start his lagging career. After an initially successful operation, however, Molly’s gregarious personality changes, and she and the men are left to ponder how a medical miracle could leave destroyed lives in its wake.

It might sound like pretentiously psychological grandstanding with obvious symbolism of both blindness and sight, but Molly Sweeney unfolds so unpretentiously and casually that we are easily caught up in these well-meaning but ineffectual lives. Friel’s poetic dialogue literally floats on air as Molly talks about getting ready for her first date with Frank, who brings up his earlier mistaken passions like sheep herding gone wrong, or Rice’s reminiscences of medical glory days and his own failed marriage. There’s even a kind of justly earned suspense that accumulates as Molly has become physically cured but mentally scarred. Friel treats his themes and their variations organically, not symbolically, which makes these people sympathetic throughout.

Charlotte Moore’s spare staging—three chairs, three window sills, three performers—accentuates Friel’s gloriously realized text. Her flawless actors are Jonathan Hogan, whose jittery hands remind us of the doctor’s work, makes a fine Rice; Ciaran O’Reilly is an amusingly pathetic Frank; and Geraldine Hughes is the perfect Molly, a far from idealized but gently beautiful soul.

Despite its weighty, dour subject matter, Molly Sweeney is so buoyant and uplifting that it takes its place as one of Friel’s finest and most accessible plays—as the Irish Rep’s impressive revival acutely demonstrates.

No comments: