Category: Archive

Theater Review ‘Molly Sweeney’ examines the vision thing

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

MOLLY SWEENEY, by Brian Friel. Directed by Johnathon Pape. Featuring Mia Dillon, Keir Dullea and Colin Lane. At Quick Center for the Arts. Irish Arts and Letters Festival, Fairfield University, Fairfield, Conn. Through March 18.

At first encounter, Brian Friel’s "Molly Sweeney," first produced in 1994, appears to be one of the Donegal playwright’s most accessible plays, with three characters telling a reasonably straightforward tale in a fairly linear manner.

The method in which the material is delivered is a series of monologues, some brief and others lengthy, with one, two, or, most often, all three of the characters onstage, listening, observing, but interacting to a distinctly limited degree.

The precise extent to which the blind, 41-year-old woman, Molly Sweeney, her recklessly impulsive husband, Frank, and the bruised, self-torturing doctor, Mr. Rice, who believes he can make her see, actually do relate to each other onstage, or seem to, is a function of the specific production.

"Molly Sweeney" is being revived, with performances through this Saturday evening at the Quick Center for the Arts, at Connecticut’s Fairfield University, as part of the organization’s ambitious and attractive Irish Arts & Letters Festival.

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The Festival itself, embracing full play productions, staged readings, lectures, poetry presentations, and a schedule of seven classic Irish films, continues at several Quick Center venues until April 8.

Director Johnathon Pape’s production of "Molly Sweeney" positions the play on a raised, gray-carpeted platform somewhat resembling a musical G-clef, with two bifurcated audience segments confronting each other across the vaguely chin-level acting area.

In truth, the play is one of Friel’s densest texts, despite its seeming simplicity. It is also, as it happens, the second major play in which the playwright has employed monologues in place of conventional dialogue, the earlier example being the much-admired but seldom-staged "Faith Healer," written in 1979 and, like "Molly Sweeney," deploying just three characters, the exception being that, the first time out, Friel never allowed any two characters, let alone all three, to occupy the stage at the same time.

In the Quick Center "Molly Sweeney," Keir Dullea is Dr. Rice, Dublin-born Colin Lane is Frank, and Mia Dillon is the eponymous heroine. All three performers have dealt with the play on earlier occasions. Dillon stood by for Catherine Byrne in the Broadway production and played Molly later in Philadelphia.

Lane replaced the original Frank, Alfred Molina, in the Roundabout Theatre production, and went on to play the part at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Dullea first did Mr. Rice at the Playmakers Rep in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The current production, however, is the first occasion on which the well-matched, gifted trio has ever performed "Molly Sweeney" together.

As things turn out, the deceptive density of the text of Friel’s "Molly," combined with the subtlety of its argument, makes the play vastly less than an ideal choice for a production basically "in the round," a situation requiring the actors to keep moving in order to present as much of their performances as possible to viewers who can actually see their faces.

The unavoidable fact is that, when an audience member is staring at the back of an actor’s head, he or she simply isn’t going to hear at least a good measure of whatever the performer is struggling to communicate.

The situation at Quick Center’s Wien Theatre wasn’t exactly helped by an opening night thunderstorm that pelted the auditorium’s metal roof with volleys of rain that approximated machine-gun fire and rendered the actors mute for long moments toward the end of the first act.

Actress Dillon, whose innate luminousness makes her an ideal Molly, faced an additional, probably unforeseen, problem in playing the role in a situation in which she is forced to remain relentlessly on the prowl in search of her audience. Turning this way and that in an effort to present the meat of the play to as much of the audience as she could find, the actress never really seemed visually impaired, except possibly in those moments in which seated quietly, she listens to her "husband" and her "doctor," or, at other instances, she seems lost in her own thoughts.

Dullea, no longer the golden youth of Stanley Kubrick’s epic "2001," plays the puzzlingly underwritten role of Mr. Rice with elegance, grace, and a particularly excellent, well-modulated speaking voice, wholly suitable to a character who has striven to rise above his humble village origins on his way to becoming a world-recognized medical man.

Even the white beard actor Dullea has grown, ostensibly for the role, however, cannot quite make him come over mature enough to deliver the battered, alcoholic, self-loathing Mr. Rice with full credibility. Not even Jason Robards, who played the role on Broadway, could make the character entirely successful.

It remains, therefore, for Colin Lane, in the showy, basically unsympathetic role of the impulsive, immature Frank Sweeney, who is nothing if not a loose cannon, to bring the production its only genuinely galvanic moments.

Roaming the oddly-shaped Quick stage like a panther, Lane treats the audience as though they were fellow villagers encountered in the local pub. So totally unaware of the realities of the impact his behavior has on the people around him that he might easily be one of the self-deceived characters created by American masters like Ring Lardner, Frank shares his passions for the potential riches to be derived from, among other ventures, raising Iranian sheep, without an iota of insight into himself.

For Frank, Molly is just another project he hopes will work out well. If the results of his enthusiasm should prove less rewarding than he dreams, there’s always another enthusiasm looming in his hazy future.

What Brian Friel has written, of course, is a complicated meditation on "vision" as opposed to "knowledge," and the gap that widens between "seeing" and "understanding." "Molly Sweeney" is one instance in which Friel’s research, never quite fully woven into the fabric of the play, reads as precisely that, intense study on the part of an earnest author undertaken in the interests of bolstering the content of a work of fiction.

If Molly is another transitory enthusiasm on the part of Frank, a husband who will eventually leave her to her own sad destiny, to Mr. Rice she is "the chance of a lifetime," an opportunity to "rescue a career."

With Rice having vaporized, and Frank reduced to write 27-page letters from Ethiopia, Molly Sweeney, a judge’s daughter given to visions of her much-loved, long-dead father, inhabits a "borderline country" which is, evidently, all that remains to her.

Taken on balance, the not-entirely-realized "Molly Sweeney" ranks as one of Brian Friel’s most deeply, most wrenchingly heartbreaking works. Because the play is infrequently performed, even a flawed but sincere production like the one at the Quick Center for the Arts merits attention.

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