Friel's 'Faith' is not unrewarded

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By Doug Deuchler

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I've watched way too many movies, so I couldn't help noting the similarity between Oak Park Festival Theatre's dynamic new production of Brian Friel's Faith Healer and Rashomon, a Japanese classic directed by Akira Kurosawa. In the 1950 film, widely different accounts of a crime are reported by four witnesses. In Friel's play there are four consecutive, extended monologues, delivered by three actors, each one alone on stage, each telling his story from his or her own point of view. Their memories are often contradictory.

A definitive storyline of the events is never offered but it's not confusing or hard to follow. It's actually mesmerizing as we listen to the characters, transfixed by their conflicting revelations, as with any good detective story. Each one confides in us, recounting often painful memories.

These forceful characters never interact; they're never on stage together until the curtain call. But the acting is riveting, the language is vivid and poetic, and the three storytellers really grab our attention.

Director Belinda Bremner finds the proper balance in this touchingly dark drama.

Kevin Theis gives a compelling performance in the title role. Frank is egocentric, a deeply-conflicted hard drinker who doesn't trust his own talent. The itinerant Irish faith healer has spent his life traveling from village to village across the British Isles, laying hands on sufferers of various disabilities and ailments. Frank is a miracle man who's also a destroyer. Theis plays him as bitter and brooding yet he's not without charm.

Frank recites a string of names of the far-flung, tiny towns where he's "played," as if he were doing Rosary beads. This incantation of geographic locations is his way of fortifying himself for what he calls his next "performance." Though he doesn't have any discernible religious sense, Frank is not a quack or charlatan. He truly has been able to cure some people some of the time. One drunken night in a Welsh village he healed 10 people. But his gift — or curse — is erratic and undependable. And he's driven by demons.

Frank speaks first and last, bookending the other two characters.

Mary Michell delivers a remarkably touching performance as Frank's tormented companion, Grace, who pits her deep anger against love and wonder. She's vulnerable yet courageous. And she has never quite recovered from the loss of her stillborn baby, years before. She's not simply in love with an impossible man; the cumulative trauma has led to her breakdown.

Jack Hickey provides solid comic relief as Teddy, warmly created as a somewhat seedy old vaudevillian who was Frank's business manager. He's in love with both Grace and Frank and serves as a fulcrum between the pair. Teddy's lots of fun, spewing amusing showbiz anecdotes. He once had a whippet (dog) who played the bagpipes.

We never quite grasp what's fact and what's fabrication. Each of the three characters paints the same key events but with a sharply different brush. Was Grace Frank's wife or his mistress? Was it Teddy, Frank or Grace who insisted on playing an old recording of Fred Astaire singing "The Way You Look Tonight" as a prelude to each of Frank's healing sessions?

Providing part of the stage backdrop, a huge green banner hangs in every hall wherever Frank appeared when the ragtag trio was on the road. It declares: "The Fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer, One Night Only."

If the name Brian Friel sounds familiar, you may recall Dancing at Lughnasa, which was also directed by Belinda Bremner at Festival Theatre several summers ago. Faith Healer, Friel's earlier work, is not as well known and has a checkered history. When the play opened in New York in 1979, with the great James Mason in the title role, it played to slim houses and closed in less than three weeks. But a huge Broadway stage is a poor venue for a play told in four monologues.

The intimacy of the studio performance space at the Madison Street Theatre is perfect. The performers are so close we even notice the details of their costumes, such as the split seams and heavy wear that shows on Frank's suit. We can even see where soup, or something else, stained his tie. More importantly, we're looking into the faces of the speakers as they address us. Many times I felt an actor was looking right back at me.

The 2½-hour drama is engaging. There's not much action other than the pouring of drinks, so virtually everything happens in the audience's imagination. But there's great storytelling and passionate acting to hold our attention firmly. We see that no matter the reality we share with others, our specific feelings and memories are separate — and often in conflict. This is a perfect play for post-curtain discussion with friends.

Lucy Carr is the assistant director. Robert W. Behr is stage manager and Chris Julun is assistant stage manager. Edwin Wald is the designer.

Doug Deuchler is a retired teacher/school librarian who, when he isn't reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities.

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