Also see Tim's review of Being Alive
Molly Sweeney, Brian Friel's tale of a blind woman who suddenly gains vision, is affecting and moving in its own right. But the Amaryllis Theatre's new production is the first to actually cast a blind actress in the lead, and that decision can't help but add more power to the show.
Molly has been blind since infancy and lonely since childhood. In her forties, she suddenly (and unexpectedly) gains a husband, and soon after that she undergoes radical eye surgery, despite her own misgivings. Her unemployed husband Frank wants a better life for her, and pushes her ophthalmologist, Mr. Rice, into pursuing the surgery. While Mr. Rice doesn't see much hope for Molly's condition, he does see the surgery as a way to help restore not just her sight but also his own troubled reputation. Molly, meanwhile, is reluctant to leave the comfortable existence she has known her whole life behind and develop a whole new way of relating to the world. When the operation is a success, Molly finds the flood of color and light dazzling - but also overwhelming. It's then that an unusual type of panic takes over, and that Molly, her husband and her doctor learn a lot about what it truly means to be able to see.
Set in Ballybeg (the fictional Donegal town that is the setting for many of Friel's plays), Molly Sweeney is probably one of Friel's most accessible works, thanks to its modern setting and its simple, direct story and language. While the language is not dense, some of it does seem unnecessary. The play runs nearly two and a half hours (including an intermission), and Friel could have trimmed a lot of it without losing the essential drama of the story. (Learning Mr. Rice's background, including the tale of how his marriage dissolved, illuminates his character but doesn't add much to the story.) Still, some of the seemingly unnecessary moments - like Frank's tale of how he tried to rescue two badgers whose home was about to be flooded - actually give symbolic insights into how Molly and Frank face their crisis.
The main problem with Molly Sweeney lies in its structure: it's all monologues. The three actors sit on wooden chairs and speak directly to the audience, occasionally (in director Tom Reing's staging) standing up and walking around to make a point. How do you make such a dry presentation seem dramatic? It's a problem that Friel himself never fully solved, and neither has Reing. Having characters describe how they view the others makes the play fascinating, but not as compelling as it should be. Frank and Mr. Rice have biased views of each other that vary greatly from the more honest views the audience sees, but to have their antagonism merely described makes it unsatisfying. (Frank mentions the frequent smell of whiskey on Mr. Rice's breath, but that doesn't jibe with the sober man of science we see in Michael Toner's performance.) The inevitable conclusion also feels too downbeat. (Friel was inspired to write the play by reading a case study by Oliver Sacks; if you've seen the movie based on Sacks' case study Awakenings, you might have an idea how this story plays out.)
What makes the play work is that it's a character study with three very interesting characters. Mr. Rice comes across as reasonable but vaguely troubled; while Toner's performance seems too remote at times, his character's concern for Molly (and, against his own first instincts, Frank) comes through. Frank, meanwhile, seems a ne'er-do-well not only to Mr. Rice but the rest of the world; he jumps from job to job, unable to find a way to, well, focus. He's almost a comic figure (and Stephen Patrick Smith's over-exaggerated brogue only makes him seem more so). Still, the fact that he has Molly's best interests at heart is what makes him such a tragic figure, and Smith makes Frank's struggle touching.
And then there's Pamela Sabaugh as Molly. To say that she's believable is to state the obvious. Molly is a character who has learned to appreciate the little things in life, from the texture of a flower to the exuberance of dancing to a hornpipe. Sabaugh's intense performance makes each moment she describes come to life vividly. In an imperfect but very worthy play, it's Sabaugh's masterful performance that makes the Amaryllis' Molly Sweeney a must-see.
Molly Sweeney runs through November 18, 2007 at The Black Box at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices are $10, and are available by calling 215-564-2431 or online at www.amaryllistheatre.org.
The production is part of Independence Starts Here: A Festival of Disability Arts and Culture, running from October 18 through November 20 across Greater Philadelphia.