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Molly Sweeney

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - May 23, 2024

Rufus Collins, Sarah Street, and John Keating
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Everybody, except me, loved Irish Repertory Theatre's previous effort in its Friel Project, Philadelphia, Here I Come! They saw a trenchant examination of stultifying small-town Irish life and the struggle to escape it; I saw a mild comedy-drama about nothing much. But Irish Rep and Brian Friel are back in splendid form with Molly Sweeney, Friel's piercing 1994 drama. The story is simple; the staging is minimal; the impact is palpable.

And the format is odd. Picture three characters sitting on mismatched chairs in mismatched rooms, each with a window behind them (Charlie Corcoran did the set). Each addresses us in a two-hour series of monologues; they never speak to one another. At first I thought, what's going on, why aren't these characters interacting? Then it made increasing sense: It's a Rashomon thing–each is offering his or her singular vision of a sad reality, and each character's tunnel vision is part of why things turn out the way they do.

Molly (Sarah Street) is a cheerful, practical thirtysomething Ballybeg lady. She had a fraught childhood, with a loving but unstable father and a mother in and out of, but mostly in, institutions. Now Molly's married to Frank Sweeney (John Keating) and under the care of Mr. Rice (Rufus Collins), an ophthalmologist with a complicated history. Blind from the age of 10 months, Molly has been happily self-sufficient, easily navigating her surroundings and maintaining a solid job as a massage therapist under the supervision of her best friend, Rita, whom we never meet. Molly's a champion swimmer; she even bikes a bit. So when Frank takes her to Rice to investigate the possibility of restoring even a fraction of her vision, the question is, how much would that improve her fairly contented life? And would she be doing it for herself, or for Frank and for Rice, who sees it as a way to restore a faltering reputation?

Three very different personalities, with different viewpoints. Frank is almost scarily enthusiastic and restless, an inveterate promoter who talks a great game, despite failing at every profession he ever tried, and quickly losing interest in any project that doesn't succeed. And Mr. Rice (note the Mr., not Dr.)–he's a bit mysterious. Evidently a leading ophthalmologist decades back, he appears to have gone off the deep end when a colleague stole his wife from him, leaving him alcoholic–is there ever a Friel play without an alcoholic?–and with a large gap in his past he never talks about. He lives solitarily, he fishes, he drinks, and despite vestiges of gentlemanly decorum from happier days, he has a mean, misanthropic streak.

Rationalizing operating on Molly, Rice asks himself, "What has she to lose, for Christ's sake? Nothing! Nothing at all!" But she does. Molly goes under the knife just before intermission, and I don't want to say how the operation goes; let's leave it at, things change. Molly, previously filled with confidence, loses it. She's handed off to a husband-and-wife psychotherapist team who make things worse. Frank is tutoring Molly, trying to shore up her observatory powers and making her terribly self-conscious. Rice, having briefly grasped at a moment of triumph, finds the past haunting him, and retreats further into it.

Friel is unusually eloquent, even for him. Here's Molly on her pre-operation expectations: "Of course I wanted to see. But that wasn't an expectation, not even a mad hope. If there was a phantom desire, a fantasy in my head, it was this: that perhaps by some means I might be afforded a brief excursion to this land of vision, not to live there, just to visit. And during my stay to devour it again and again and again with greedy, ravenous eyes. To gorge on all those luminous sights and wonderful spectacles until I knew every detail intimately and utterly, every ocean, every leaf, every field, every star, every tiny flower. And then, oh yes, to return home to my own world with all that rare understanding within me forever." A poetic Irish lilt, hasn't it? And an outlook her husband and her doctor don't share at all.

As Molly, Sarah Street is miscast in one respect: Molly keeps complaining about her awful hair, and Street has perfectly gorgeous, Julianne Moore hair. But she catches every note of Molly's affability, resolve, terror, retreat. It's an emotional workout, and she's fully up to it. Keating, who has done much good work at Irish Rep, plays at one level, relentlessly upbeat, but that suits the loquacious, scattered Frank. And Collins has a natural warmth that helps us understand Rice's disappointments, and forgive his brusqueness.

What happens to Molly is heartbreaking, and Friel's device of telling her story from several conflicting viewpoints actually clarifies the action. Credit Charlotte Moore, whose direction keeps movement at a minimum–why add extraneous blocking to the onrush of Friel's beautiful language–and tells us where to focus at every moment, helped by Michael Gottlieb's precise lighting. Linda Fisher's costumes look to be circa 1985, which would be about right for what the program calls an "unspecified time," given the few cultural signposts. A quiet evening, Molly Sweeney nonetheless burrows deep into human insecurities, ironies of fate, and where the best-laid plans sometimes end up. With this one, Irish Rep does itself proud.

Molly Sweeney
Through June 30, 2024
Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, 132 West 22nd Street, New York NY
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