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Theatre in Review: Molly Sweeney (Keen Company/Theatre Row)

Pamela Sabaugh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

As if to prove the adage about the Irish and their gift of gab, in 1994 Brian Friel wrote Molly Sweeney, a play that talks itself into a standstill. Borrowing the format of Faith Healer (one of his best works), the playwright constructed Molly Sweeney out of interlocking monologues delivered by three characters, each offering his or her version of the title character's tragic saga. As always with this writer, the sentences are impeccably constructed, each word carefully chosen. His insights into the characters are penetrating yet sympathetic; no corner of anyone's soul escapes his probing eye. When Molly arrives at her sad fate, the denouement is achieved organically and without any theatrical tricks -- but by then you may have already become disengaged from this loquacious trio.

It's not surprising that Friel might revisit the tripartite narrative structure of Faith Healer; everyone else has. Given the prevalence of contemporary Irish plays constructed along similar lines, one can argue that it is his most influential work. But if it lacks dramatic action, Faith Healer has a built-in tension that exerts a strong grip: Each character's version of the story is at odds with the other two, leaving us to wonder who is honest and who is lying -- or, possibly, deluded. It's a fascinating, fruitless guessing game and it makes Faith Healer into a tantalizing exercise in mystery. In Molly Sweeney, the characters are in basic agreement about the events of the play and how they unfold; furthermore, the characters' intentions are revealed early and often, leaving little to discover about them. The audience is placed in the position of passive listener, a strategy that breeds tedium.

What is even more confounding is that the narrative of Molly Sweeney has an inherent fascination; told in another, more dramatic manner, it could hold the stage proudly. Taking inspiration from Oliver Sacks' essay "To See and Not See," Friel constructed an original story about the title character, who has been almost entirely blind since infancy. (She can sense some light and movement.) Employing the quiet lyricism that is her natural way of speaking, Molly describes how her devoted father taught her to identify all the plants in the family garden using touch and smell. This indoctrination into the use of her other senses has served her brilliantly: Now in her forties, she lives a contented life filled with music and other enjoyments.

But Molly is married to Frank, an overgrown boy who lives only for fresh possibilities, no matter how chimerical. This trait hasn't served him well, as he has left behind a trail of misbegotten business ventures, for example importing Iranian goats (chosen for their high milk yield) to a western island where they fail to thrive. (Other projects include raising African bees and "three winters in Norway," working on the "well-being of whales.") Even though medical science holds out little hope for Molly, Frank is convinced that she can be made to see. (In contrast, the most she hopes for is "a brief excursion to this land of vision; not to live there -- just to visit.") His determination leads them to Mr. Rice, once one of the four or five top eye surgeons in the world before slipping permanently into a whiskey bottle, thanks to his wife's affair with a close colleague. At first, Rice is certain nothing can be done for Molly but, tempted by the possibility of a career-restoring success -- he admits to missing the "greed for achievement" -- he agrees to take her as a patient. Indeed, both men have taken her on as a project, each for reasons of his own.

This point is crucial, because Rice does achieve a remarkable partial restoration of Molly's sight, only to see the apparent miracle play out disastrously. As it happens, seeing doesn't come easy when you haven't learned to do it; as Frank notes, "She would have to build up a whole repertory of visual engrams and then, then she would have to establish connections between these new imprints and the tactile engrams she already possessed. Put it another way: she would have to create a whole new world of her own." But Molly is unable to process the onslaught of visual information that confronts her, and her initial enthusiasm turns to depression and a retreat from the world.

Molly's story is a potentially powerful melding of science and poetry, especially in its explication of the challenges inherent in Molly's learning to grasp with her eyes what she has so skillfully used her other senses to perceive. But the play is too clear about Frank and Rice's motives, the selfishness lurking underneath their apparent concern for her, a strategy that drains it of drama. Also missing is suspense; even if you haven't read Sacks' original case history, it is fairly obvious that things won't go well. And Molly herself, for all her way with words, is a strangely passive creature who, despite her sharp observations about others, lets them alter her fate in terrible ways. (Her one overt act, a wild nighttime dive off a local cliff, doesn't at all jive with the woman we see.) One dearly wishes that she would learn to push back, just a little, at these men and their designs.

The longer the characters talk, despite their frankness and eloquence, the more Molly Sweeney suffers from flagging energy; it's a prose piece for the theatre, and it runs out of breath long before it is over. This is so even given the fine Keen Company cast, under the acute direction of Jonathan Silverstein. Pamela Sabaugh's Molly is a woman of hidden depths, whether recalling her father whispering in her ear, "I promise you, my darling, you aren't missing a lot; not a lot at all. Trust me," or describing the profound joy she derives from swimming -- to her a profoundly sensual experience. Tommy Schrider seizes on Frank's parade of passing enthusiasm and his run-on way with a story to highlight the character's latent immaturity. But there's also something touching about his ardent wooing of Molly, using dancing to give her a new sensation and a feeling of security in his arms. Paul O'Brien captures Rice's slightly pretentious manner -- he is something of a self-invented character -- and his habit of getting lost in memories of his glorious past; the sadness in his eyes is ever-present.

The production design is, correctly, understated: Steven Kemp's set places three chairs -- with Molly's seat on an elevated level at stage center -- against a drop suggestive of the sea. Fan Zhang's sound design, Jennifer Paar's costumes, and Anshuman Bhatia's lighting are all on target.

Friel has many fans who may be more tolerant of Molly Sweeney's garrulous characters; the play has a rather high critical reputation and was presented by the Irish Rep within recent memory. But this is a piece that is probably more enjoyable when read. Even on the page, it looks like a novel trying to pass as a play. -- David Barbour

(24 October 2019)

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