May 23, 2009 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall
Sitting in the audience that filled every seat at the press opening of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer at the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Unicorn Theatre, I found myself envying those who knew little or nothing about the play and for whom it would be a daunting experience.
And just as strongly I rejoiced that I was one of those who had come, knowing the play and feeling sure that under Eric Hill’s mesmerizing direction, it would unfold dazzlingly in its subtle, but all so Irish, experience and weave gradually to its shattering ending.
For any future audience members to whom the play is unknown, I will tread lightly on plot and offer a few suggestions as to what to expect. For the Friel enthusiasts, I’ll attempt to describe the play’s “Irishness,” based as it is on the old tradition of seanachie, and how Friel employs it, blending metaphor into his theme and how this production reveals it.
The play is composed of four consecutive monologs delivered by three actors, each alone on the stage, in a minimal but beautifully lit set, each telling his story from his own point of view.
Frank Hardy (Colin Lane) opens the play and his second monolog closes it. Frank is the Faith Healer who has found significance in his very initials which seem to have bestowed on him an art over which he feels he has a strange talent, but one not under his control. He can, occasionally, heal, but at other times it is impossible. And usually he is aware of what the outcome will be. Yet his untaught talent drives him.
From Frank we learn also what he chooses to tell us of the long twenty years of touring the little fringe towns of Wales and Scotland (where he expects subjects to be more gullible). He can be charming and persuasive, but there are topics he avoids. His memory of scenes sharply differs from that of his two companions, and does so in significant and self-protecting ways. Lane gives us a conflicted character – endearing, but also hurtful and self protecting. His final monolog is beautifully and sympathetically rendered. For all his weaknesses, he still gains our compassion. A strong portrayal.
Keira Naughton as Grace brings grief and courage to her role as wife? (Frank at times seems to deny her this honor) and fellow-traveler of twenty years in the van. She too shares scenes Frank has told us of, but from a different angle, and we see her later through the eyes of the third character, Teddy, in a setting that forces her into assuming a bravery for which she has not the strength.
Her role demands the skilled actor that she is, aware of subtle nuance and the character’s conflicted emotions concerning her twenty year association with Frank. She gives us a woman we can admire. And later, when Teddy speaks, we can understand with even greater sympathy the flowing woman she once was who at one brief moment of sheer happiness could sing of “endearing young charms.” A carefully crafted performance.
Teddy (David Adkins) brings he first bursts of humor, music and song into the play as he almost avoiding material that involves his love and devotion to Frank, and especially to Grace. His accounts of his life before he joined them on their twenty year trek of the hinterlands is hilarious.
And he finally, bravely, confronts the sites that recur in the incantations and haunt all three in the group. He is Frank’s manager. His speech is broad Cockney and his formal education probably slight, far less than that of Grace and the career she abandoned.
“Manager” is a rather glorious title for the role he plays as van driver, but is too humble a word for other actions he has been on hand to perform. Adkins gives us a character we can love, one who supported the others in time of need, and who remembers the “big” moments differently and movingly. A sympathetic character, warmly created.
Frank delivers the final monolog, and finally, buttoned into his shabby coat, knows why he came back to Ireland.
Since in the monologs each character brings us only the way he/she remembers it, facts differ wildly. Still Friel keeps us on keel. Gradually, especially if we are new to the play we realize that not only do themes recur, but so certain names of the incanted villages. And the name Kinlockberbie, that small town in the far north of Scotland is often not only named, but repeated. With what happened described differently.
Even more significantly, two sentences, seemingly harmless description will, somewhere in each of the three’s monologs be introduced.
“So on the last day we crossed from Strenraer to Larne and drove through the
night to County Donegal. And there we got lodging in a pub, a lounge bar really,
outside a village called Ballybeg, not far from Donegal Town.”
These are some of the moments to listen for. Much of each story sheds light upon the fates of the others and on the basic theme that seems to me to be a metaphor referring to all artists, who feel someway “chosen” (at times almost reluctantly) to use an inborn gift. One that they embrace as if “called” to it, but one of which they are at times fearful. It can fail them. But even knowing they will fail, they must face the challenge and go on. Accept. In this play Frank “knew.”
Sadly, those living in the shadow of such artists often suffer too. But loving, they support, carry on, as long as they can.
Despite the sadness, this is not a depressing play. The characters are real and moving and each admirable in his or her own way. Although an early Friel, many would list it among his best, as perfect in its own way as Translations or
Molly Sweeney with its similar format of three, appearing fifteen years later.
Eric Hill and his team of actors, technicians have brought to the BTF’s Unicorn Stage a beautiful, sympathetic and dynamic production of an important play. What a lovely way to start the summer season in the Berkshires!