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Theatre in Review: Molly Sweeney (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Sarah Street. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Molly Sweeney is so elegantly written, so brimful of penetrating insights, that I'm sorry to report that it never quite rises to the level of drama. Employing three interwoven monologues -- a strategy that made his 1979 masterpiece Faith Healer so successful -- the late, great Brian Friel composed a narrative that, line by line beguiles without fully engaging one's emotional interest. It's a spoken-word triptych orchestrated like music, an approach that is sometimes mesmerizing but also enervating. Charlotte Moore's production yields new insights into a play seen several times in New York since its 1995 debut, but it remains a beautifully realized piece of prose masquerading as a work for the theatre.

Inspired by an Oliver Sacks case history, Molly Sweeney is the tale of a woman whose blindness is a disability only to the extent that the men in her life are driven to exploit it. (Sacks later said that Friel admitted to suffering an attack of "cryptomnesia," unconsciously lifting themes and even whole sentences from the neurologist's New Yorker essay "To See but Not See.") Having lost her sight before her first birthday, Molly doesn't miss it; gainfully employed as a massage therapist, she lives a full and independent existence. Then she marries Frank, a professional ne'er-do-well with a long trail of failed business ventures. A man of intense, but brief, enthusiasms, Frank decides that Molly must be made to see again. To this end, he engages Mr. Rice, once one of the world's top eye surgeons but now, following the collapse of his marriage, an alcoholic recluse. (His wife ran off with a colleague, causing his comfortable world of international conferences and triumphant case studies to collapse.) Rice is skeptical about Molly's prospects, fearing "that her blindness was [Frank's] latest cause and that it would absorb him just as long as his passion lasted." Yet he signs on, seeing in Molly a path to restoring his professional reputation

. Thus, Molly, who needs no rescuing, falls into the hands of men determined to do just that; sadly, the salvation they proffer is a prelude to disaster. The night before she enters the hospital, Molly feels "the dread of exile, of being sent away. It was the desolation of homesickness." As it happens, she is prescient: Her operations are a greater success than anyone dared hope and her first few weeks of seeing constitute "a world of wonder and surprise and delight." But there's a catch: "It was a very foreign world, too. And disquieting; even alarming. Every color dazzled. Every light blazed. Every shape an apparition, a specter that appeared suddenly from nowhere and challenged you. And all that movement -- nothing ever still -- everything in motion all the time; and every movement unexpected, somehow threatening. Even the sudden sparrows in the garden, they seemed aggressive, dangerous." All too soon, her so-called miracle leaves her perched on an emotional cliff, falling into a depression and retreating from the world.

Given rapidly changing ideas about how to portray the disabled onstage -- see, for example. Laura Winters' romantic comedy All of Me, currently running at The New Group -- the time would seem ripe for a revival of Molly Sweeney, a play that, in many ways, was ahead of its time. And, under Moore's direction, it is clearer than ever how much Molly suffers at the hands of men who profess to love her. (These include her father, who, "always mean with money," declined to "pay the blind school fees," preferring to keep her at home while her mother came and went into mental institutions.) But even this assured cast can't quite make Friel's script cohere.

John Keating's Frank amuses when describing his many get-rich-quick schemes, including a wayward attempt at raising Iranian goats, which, desired for their high milk yield, never adapted to Ireland's time zone. ("They lived in a kind of perpetual jetlag," he says, demanding to be tended to at all hours.) He is stimulating when discussing the philosophers John Locke and William Molyneux on perception and meaning, ideas critical to Molly's well-being after she regains her vision. But we never get a sense of what, deep down, he feels about Molly -- whether he views her with tenderness or an avid sense of exploitation. Rufus Collins appears to be skating across the surface of Rice's character, presenting his role in Molly's story with an off-putting scientific detachment. The accomplished Sarah Street eloquently delivers Molly's account but, even so, it is difficult to imagine her executing a furious, rebellious hornpipe at a party or taking a death-defying leap into the ocean in a moment of deep distress. Indeed, each character seems to occupy a universe separate from the others.

As is typical of this fine company, the production is designed with an appealing understatement: Charlie Corcoran's set neatly carves out a space for each character, aided by Michael Gottlieb's lighting, which creates color treatments on the upstage cyc reminiscent of stained-glass windows. Linda Fisher dresses the trio appropriately, no small achievement since the script declines to identify a time frame, and Hidenori Nakajo's sound design includes effective opening music that strikes a strong note of tension and melancholy.

Unusually, the play gains interest in the second half, as Molly's fate plays out, spurred on by Frank's ill-advised interview with a Dublin reporter. (There is no end to the lineup of others hoping to make something of Molly's case, including a pair of psychologists planning a book about her; too bad she defies easy classifications.) Still, one can't help feeling the script is more gripping to read than to see. This is, of course, a minority opinion; many think of Molly Sweeney as a modern classic. Still, she remains a creature of prose; to my mind, the page, not the stage, is her natural home. --David Barbour

(3 June 2024)

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