nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
January 28, 2011
A confident, beautiful, and life-affirming blind woman is transformed over a period of a few months into a shattered wreck of a seeing woman in Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney, in production at Irish Rep.
There’s her doctor, Mr. Rice (Jonathan Hogan), her husband Frank (Ciaran O’Reilly), and the blind woman herself, Molly (Geraldine Hughes). Rice is a world-class ophthalmologist who’s fallen on hard times and the bottle. Abandoned by his Swiss wife, he now practices in a rundown hospital in rural Ballybeg. Molly works as a masseur at a health club. Her husband, Frank, is a charming, unemployed do-gooder with a short-attention span. As Rice wryly notes at one point, the quest for Molly’s vision may simply be Frank’s newest cause, like whales or goat cheese.
Friel’s script dives into the question of vision—who has it, who doesn’t, and the physiological differences between seeing and understanding. (One of the great, unsung muses of modern drama may turn out to be the neurologist Oliver Sacks. Check out Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska.) Molly, while blind, is perfectly adapted to her world. When her vision is partially restored by Rice’s medical miracle, she’s thrust into a startling, threatening land she can no longer navigate. The miracle of sight becomes for Molly a curse that leads to a breakdown and the madhouse. Frank is shortsighted in his goals, and Rice can only see the possible redemption of his reputation. Only blind Molly sees things as they are and at one point dances out an angry hornpipe to illustrate her anxiety at being torn away from the world she knows and loves. When the decision is made to try and restore her sight, no one seems to ask her if it’s what she wants.
Friel’s writing is lyrical, vivid, and filled with juice. His rich language bores into the souls of his characters. But as in his Faith Healer, he adopts the convention of three characters telling the story through interlocking monologues, which leeches honest-to-God conflict and action from the evening. It also prevents us from ever seeing these three people deal with each other. Molly Sweeney is a good tale, but it requires top-notch actors to keep it from sinking into an earnest Irish talkfest. Fortunately, the cast is up to it.
With her pale skin and sharply defined features, Hughes is a gorgeous Molly, and she makes the character’s love of life and eventual crack-up effective without ever resorting to sentimentality. There’s a first-rate actress at work here. Ciaran O’Reilly is excellent as Frank, the feckless autodidact always on fire with a new obsession. O’Reilly’s ingratiating take on the role makes his eventual betrayal even more dismaying, yet entirely in keeping with this self-absorbed man. Jonathan Hogan, a stalwart of the late Circle Rep, gives an honest and unaffected reading of Rice, yet for some reason, dispenses with any attempt at an Irish accent. Frank frequently observes that Rice puts on aristocratic airs above his station, but there’s no trace of that in Hogan’s portrayal.
Charlotte Moore’s direction is clear and concise, laying out the story without any unnecessary frills. But the decision to keep all the actors strictly confined to their own stage space without ever leaving plays into the static nature of Friel’s script.