nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 9, 2006
I'm sorry, but I found Jonathan Kent's new production of Faith Healer unwatchable.
I mean this literally. Jonathan Fensom's set for the show consists of some sparse furniture on a bare, open stage whose three walls have been painted a steely and unyielding dark, dark grey. Mark Henderson's lighting consists of sprigs or pins of dim light on the actor who is on stage at the moment (this is a monologue play, with the actors performing one at a time). The resultant barely illuminated stage pictures played havoc with my middle-aged eyes; after staring most of the day at a computer screen, they hope for something more loaded with color, contrast, and action to look at than the grainy, unfocused, stagnant sights that comprise Faith Healer. My eyes and I gave up the ghost at intermission and went home.
What I can tell you from having sat through the first act is that Ralph Fiennes is giving a fine, nuanced, appealing performance here, as a man named Francis Hardy who makes his living as a faith healer, traveling around small towns in Scotland and Wales and "performing" (his term) in front of audiences of the desperate and hopeless. Fiennes gives vivid voice to Brian Friel's talky script, creating a character who thinks a lot about his job and his place in the world, his so-called "gift" and how it relates to the abstract notion of faith.
I can also tell you that Cherry Jones seems badly miscast as Hardy's wife, Grace, a woman whose passion for her husband is approximately the same (enormous) size as her skepticism about his abilities; her concern for his emotional and psychological welfare is, apparently, the thing that binds her to a man she nevertheless steadfastly refuses to understand. Grounded, smart Jones never makes us believe in this odd, flighty woman; and directed by Kent to sit relentlessly still in a chair for her entire 35-minute monologue, she's hard to stay focused on. Jones's odd accent—American Midwestern except for Boston-y long a's—is difficult to listen to, as well.
As for Friel's play, it strikes me as lazy writing of the kind that has become more and more pre-eminent in the English-speaking theatre in the 20-odd years since he composed this piece. Its structure—four successive monologues—precludes the playwright from having to develop believable interactions among characters, which seems to me to be the hallmark of good dramatic writing; instead, he substitutes easy but undefined relationships between them and us, and I found myself wondering, repeatedly: who are these people? where are they? where do they think I am? why are they talking to me?
It's possible that some of those questions might have been answered for me had I wished to subject my eyes to another hour-plus of the severe strain of trying to look at this dim and static production's second act. (The lighting is so dark that from row K in the orchestra I could barely make out what was written on a large placard at least six feet high that is the most prominent set piece.) As things stand, the questions will remain unanswered...and I'm not feeling bothered by that at all.