Alone among the plays of Brian Friel, “Molly Sweeney,” currently being given an excellent revival production at the Irish Repertory Theatre, carries a kind of backstory which suggests that the playwright had based the play on something he’d read or perhaps heard about.
In a note in the programme, Friel admits that he is “particularly indebted” to Oliver Sacks’ case history, “To See and Not See.” The account by Sacks, a prolific British-born essayist, appeared in his book, “An Anthropologist on Mars,” which is probably where Friel encountered it and found it useful in developing “Molly Sweeney.”
Friel’s play deals with a youngish middle-class Irish married woman, employed by a community center. She is a resident of Donegal and has been blind from childhood. She has just been operated on by a gifted, but troubled, surgeon, and has her sight restored to a degree, first in the right eye and then, in the course of the play, the left.
Having been schooled by a loving and devoted father to “see” without sight, to identify flowers, trees and grasses from their scent, she finds she prefers the sightless life to which she has been accustomed to the sighted one now opening to her.
Friel’s programme note quotes French encyclopedist Denis Diderot as writing that “learning to see is not like learning a new language. It’s like learning language for the first time.” Which is what “Molly Sweeney” is all about.
The Irish Rep production, meticulously directed by Charlotte Moore, the group’s Artistic Director, is vastly superior to the original 1996 New York production, an early effort on the part of the Roundabout Theatre Company, with the late Jason Robards playing the eye surgeon, a formerly celebrated individual referred to as “Mr Rice.”
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The character is now in the capable hands of veteran actor Jonathan Hogan, making his Irish Rep debut, as is the eloquent Geraldine Hughes in the title role.
The Rep’s Producing Director, Ciaran O’Reilly, is giving one of his best performances as the play’s third and final character, Molly’s frequently unemployed and shiftless husband, Frank, a man given to fads and transitory enthusiasms.
“Molly Sweeney” is composed as a series of monologues, with Friel’s trio telling their stories without ever addressing each other directly. James Morgan’s set design, creatively lighted by Richard Pilbrow and Michael Gottlieb, is composed of three chairs, each placed near a different window. When not actually speaking, Molly, Frank and Mr. Rice usually face a window, their backs to the audience. Linda Fisher’s costumes are simple and suitable.
Director Moore has handled the monologue form with amazing freshness and insight, allowing no more than a second or two to elapse between the end of one speech and the start of the next. The result is a fluidity and an overall pace seldom found in this sort of play.
The current crop of Irish playwrights, including Conor McPherson and Mark O’Rowe, have been accused of relying too heavily on the monologue, but Brian Friel has, with “Molly Sweeney,” and the invaluable help of Charlotte Moore, made it all seem fresh again.
Friel’s “Molly Sweeney” is one of the playwright’s more minor works. But, done as well as it’s being done at the Irish Repertory Theatre, it still delivers.