Being able to savor each and every word in a play isn’t always possible as there are the usual and inevitable and mostly obligatory distractions that come with action and the live experience. As Brian Friel brilliantly accomplished with the four monologues that drove “Faith Healer” in 1974, it is for the actors and their three extended monologues in “Molly Sweeney” to drive the dramatic narrative.
What a joy and pleasure it is to experience “Molly Sweeney’s” first Off Broadway revival at the Irish Repertory Theater 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).
Theatergoers 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 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 and body 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 completely convinced that seeing was what she needed. But she complies 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 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 counterpoint 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. ***
“Molly Sweeney,” through Sunday, April 10, Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. $55 and $65. 212-727-2737.