Monday, January 24, 2011

Attend the Tale of Sweeney

Brian Friel’s 1993 play Molly Sweeney, now in revival in a very well acted but purposefully distancing production at the Irish Rep, is a cautionary tale about the importance of being careful what you wish for—or, in this case, being pressured into believing that you want what others wish for you.

Think of Molly Sweeney as the flip side of A Small Fire, by Adam Bock (currently on view at Playwright’s Horizons), in which the life of a middle-aged woman is turned upside-down when she suffers the consequences of the loss of her senses. 

In Molly Sweeney, the life of a middle-aged woman is turned upside-down when she suffers the consequences of the regaining of her sense of sight after being unable to see since the age of 10 months.  

Friel, the highly regarded creator of such plays as Philadelphia Here I Come and Dancing at Lughnasa, is a terrific storyteller, something that is both a strength and a dramatic problem with Molly Sweeney

The play is presented not as a drama, but as a narrative in the form of alternating monologues by three characters:  Molly, her husband Frank, and Mr. Rice, the physician who partially restores Molly’s sight.  Through these monologues, Friel paints a rich portrait of each of the characters, but because there is no interaction among them, the play—despite the very touching story it relates—has a clinical feel to it, like reading one of those medical case study puzzlers in The New York Times Magazine

We learn that Molly has never had much interest in having her sight restored.  She has never felt herself to be deprived or particularly disabled.  She long ago learned to compensate through a heightened reliance on her other senses.  She is very independent, has lots of friends, holds down a successful job as a message therapist, and seems to be well adjusted and reasonably happy. 

It is Frank, her unemployed “tree hugger” of a husband, who convinces Molly to seek a medical solution to her blindness.  He has immersed himself in the medical literature and is convinced that, because Molly was not born blind, there is a good chance that her sight can be restored through surgery.  And if it doesn’t work, he asks rhetorically, what has she got to lose?

Into the scene steps the third character, Mr. Rice, the down-at-the-heels ophthalmologist who longs to return to the days when he was part of a small group of wunderkinds  in his field. He decides there’s no harm in giving it a shot.  After all, he asks rhetorically, what has she got to lose?

Inevitably, it turns out that Molly has much to lose, and it is that loss that gives the play its emotional resonance.  It is here that the monologues work best by saving us from any sentimentality or mawkishness that might otherwise intrude.  

The play, as performed on the bare bones postage-stamp of a stage at the Irish Rep, is blessed with strong performances by all three actors:  Geraldine Hughes as Molly, Jonathan Hogan as Mr. Rice, and the Rep’s multitalented managing director and actor CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly as Frank.  All of the actors, under the guidance of director Charlotte Moore, give us distinct and interesting characters to consider, but go understanding that as an audience member, you will have  only your sense of hearing  to inform you.  You will truly have to attend this tale of Sweeney in order to fully appreciate Brian’s Friel’s craftsmanship.

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