The Gate Theatre Dublin production of Faith Healer by Brian Friel. Directed by Jonathan Kent. Set and costume design by Jonathan Fensom. Lighting design by Mark Henderson. Sound design by Christopher Cronin. Video design by Sven Ortel. Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Cherry Jones, Ian McDiarmid.
Brian Friel's Faith Healer is dedicated to the proposition that the least reliable interpreters of history are those who actually witness it. Any number of interpretations are provided of the trials and triumphs surrounding the traveling trio at the play's center, but which - if any - can be believed is the most confounding conundrum.
Nonetheless, thorough distrust is rarely as invigorating as in the Gate Theatre Dublin production of the play, which has just opened at the Booth. Buoyed by world-class actors and probing direction from Jonathan Kent, this mounting doesn't shy away from the dark shadows cast by the questions from which the play is constructed. But nor does it deny you the thrill of feeling that somewhere, buried beneath mountains of ambiguity, the answers are waiting to be discovered.
Whether this impression, like practically everything else in the play, is reality or merely illusion is beyond the scope of Friel's writing. The point isn't what we know or don't know, but how we cope with what information is provided: As recent political events in this country and around the world remind us on a daily basis, no one anywhere ever has the whole story. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something. Thus, in depicting Faith Healer's titular salesman, "the fantastic Francis Hardy," through the eyes and words of Francis (usually called Frank) and his cohorts Grace and Teddy, Friel etches multiple layers of uncertainty into every story, making it impossible to determine whether lies, truths, or (more likely) a combination are passing across the footlights.
Frank (Ralph Fiennes), Grace (Cherry Jones), and Teddy (Ian McDiarmid) can agree on only the most benign details of their 20-year career together. Where meetings took place. That Grace delivered Frank's stillborn baby. That Frank healed a man's crooked finger during a night at a pub. But dig deeper and the paths diverge: Who suggested their theme song, "The Way You Look Tonight," and why? Is Grace Frank's wife or his mistress? Who buried the baby, and under what circumstances? And who really died along the way?
It's such differences in each person's testimony, both minute and major, on which Faith Healer unexpectedly thrives. The play is famously (or infamously) structured as a series of lengthy monologues - the first and last for Frank, the second for Grace, the third for Teddy - that on the surface would seem to destroy any possibility for dramatic interaction. (This is frequently cited as a prime reason that the original Broadway production, which starred James Mason and was directed by José Quintero, ran only 20 performances in 1979.)
Kent's production - despite being designed with an unnecessary oppressiveness by Jonathan Fensom, though it's superbly lit by Mark Henderson - reveals this as yet one more convenient inaccuracy. Faith Healer doesn't provide the depth of emotional affirmation that Friel's other plays, like Dancing at Lughnasa or Philadelphia, Here I Come!, do, but it offers more intellectual and haunting pleasures that prove no less resonant after leaving the theater.
Despite operating individually, Fiennes, Jones, and McDiarmid create complex interlocking relationships that form an ironclad family among these disagreement-prone people. This is exactly as it should be, as each is structurally vital: Fiennes's matter-of-fact delivery of his first monologue provides a strong foundation for the evening; Jones, with her subtly aching soulfulness, and McDiarmid, with cockney-tinged confidence, then take turns refuting some segments and reinforcing others.
But if Fiennes is a fine, clinical choice for Frank, with the requisite magnetism and malleable personality, he's less effective at connecting to Frank's inner turmoil. His inability to control his gift, which leads everyone - including us - to wonder whether he's a true miracle worker or a fraud, is a central element of Frank generally absent in Fiennes's too-studied performance in the first scene. He redeems himself later, when Frank must confront his own questionable ability.
But no such inconsistencies are to be found with Jones and McDiarmid, whose delicately nuanced portrayals are in themselves full plays, yet still parts of the seamless whole.
Jones, chairbound as the scarred, scared Grace, evokes a piercing, wounded intimacy in her recollections of the tragedies that defined her life with Frank. Her strength seeps from her as she talks, leaving behind a perfect representation of the broken shell of a woman Teddy will soon describe. Jones's accent might occasionally waver or vanish altogether, but even this captivates: Was Grace, too, a fraud, just one who couldn't be so easily found out?
It's McDiarmid, however, who truly anchors the show with his sensitive performance as Teddy, Frank's manager. He first appears grandfatherly and even disjointed, his eyes brimming with clear-eyed love as he relates his remembrances of his long career, much of which are obscured by the fog of time, assuming they ever occurred at all. But as Frank and Grace slowly lead him back to the present, they reveal in him a man of profound passions, convictions, and conflictions.
McDiarmid masterfully uses these, gently at first but eventually with increasing force, to show what Jones and Fiennes don't, or can't: that Teddy might be the real victim in all this. As he sips beer after beer, getting even more trapped in his ideas about what happened and why, you might instinctively find yourself drawn to his bottomless warmth, humor, and openness, or even accepting his side of the story as the one and only Truth.
Don't fall for it. The real story doesn't lie in him alone any more than it does in Grace or Frank. It's a part of them all, and yet separate - something everyone knows, but something no one can know for sure. This Faith Healer, however, makes attempting to divine what really happened the most engrossing mystery of the year.