Seeing is believing -- or so the saying goes. But as Irish playwright Brian Friel dramatizes in Molly Sweeney, the relationship between vision and knowledge is really much more complicated. What if we don't recognize something we see, having only encountered it through the other senses? What do we make of it then? And would a blind person prefer a sightless world rich in touch, taste, scent and sound to a blurry world full of phenomena that she must learn to recognize by sight, one object at a time? These questions, along with a poignant story of how the desire to help others often masks a deeper desire to help one's self, come to light in Lost Nation Theater's current staging of Friel's provocative play.
Friel is probably best known for Dancing at Lughnasa, which was adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep. Molly Sweeney is no less popular -- at least three local productions have been mounted in Vermont in the past five years. But the play may in fact be more profound. Like the Val Kilmer-Mira Sorvino film At First Sight, it's based on the true story of a blind man whose sight was restored through cataract surgery. In Friel's drama, however, it is a 40-year-old woman -- the title character, Molly Sweeney -- who regains her sight. Set in contemporary rural Ireland at some point after Molly's operation, the play delves into the psychological and emotional lives of its three characters, illuminating their inner worlds through a series of shifting monologues.
Molly, played by Kathleen Keenan, is a massage therapist who has been blind since she was 10 months old. Her disability notwithstanding, the life she describes in the coastal town of Ballybeg is a happy one. Indeed, when she meets and marries Frank, a restless, not-quite-Renaissance man played by Peter Husovsky, her life seems complete. But Molly's blindness becomes Frank's latest cause. At his urging, she agrees to meet with an ophthalmologist. Played by John Haag, Mr. Rice has fallen from a lofty professional pinnacle to an obscure regional hospital assignment and a life of lonely nights and whiskey. In Molly, he sees a shot at redemption.
The stakes are high for all three characters in Molly Sweeney, despite early assertions by Frank and Mr. Rice that Molly has nothing to lose if the operation fails. For her part, Molly is uncertain about what she stands to gain or lose, having found her place in the world through her four other senses. Early in the play, she even remarks that sighted people should envy her for the sublime sensation she derives from swimming. What gives the play such dramatic intensity is the creeping feeling, revealed as the characters retell the story of Molly's operation, that there always was, in fact, much more at risk than met the eye.
That gathering interest constitutes the connective tissue in this formally didactic play, in which characters do not interact with one another and there is very little movement. In keeping with the minimalist approach, scenic designer Kevin M. Kelly has situated each character upon a sparsely decorated riser. Mr. Rice sits at stage right in a leather chair with a side table that holds his bottle and glass. Molly sits on a chair at center stage. At left, Frank hovers around what looks like the corner of a pub.
Like Molly's operation, Friel's talky approach yields costs as well as benefits. While the monologues provide clear, direct explanations, they also deprive the play of action. It falls to the actors to animate the stories they are telling. Under Kim Bent's direction, the LNT production hits an engaging dramatic stride more often than not, serving the play well overall, but the individual performances occasionally sag under the burden. The pace of the play also flags a bit in the second act as the monologues grow more somber.
As Molly, Keenan faces a formidable acting task. Her words must bring to life a rough journey across treacherous emotional terrain -- unabashed joy, grave doubt, fear, frustration, despair, abject loneliness. In this effort, Keenan shines. From one line to the next, her mood shifts suddenly and dramatically, and Keenan uses body language and facial expressions to further project those changes. In some monologues, these emotional beats fall in many disparate places along the emotional spectrum, but Keenan hits them squarely and confidently.
Her Irish accent is less consistent, sometimes lapsing into a singsong pattern that borders on soporific, especially in the second act. On the whole, though, her gentle disposition and emotional range juxtapose compellingly with her more assertive male counterparts to show that she has, in a sense, been victimized by their big ideas.
Although he's the intellectual of the trio, Mr. Rice is somewhat imprisoned by his emotions. His nostalgia for his glory days is tinged with remorse for having withdrawn into obscurity after his wife left him for one of his colleagues. Haag, a commanding stage presence, plays the self-assured surgeon more convincingly than the cuckold. His arrogance is nuanced; after all, what accolades he has earned are now part of his past. When he breaks down, however, his anguish does not always seem real.
As Frank, Husovsky turns in the show's strongest -- and funniest -- overall performance. The humor lies in his utter lack of self-consciousness, even as one failed enterprise yields to another. At times Frank seems unable to complete a thought, let alone some pie-in-the-sky agricultural venture. He recounts one such enterprise involving a herd of Iranian goats that refused to adjust their sleep and milking schedules to Irish time.
Husovsky brings what Mr. Rice calls "the indiscriminate enthusiasms of the self-taught" to Frank's character with the play's most physical acting. Husovsky has made some bold choices in bringing Frank to life, and each of them works well. Talking relentlessly as he strides about, Husovsky's Frank springs from one "aha" moment to the next, staunching his torrent of "fascinating" discoveries only to retrace, in strained pauses, the route back to the mouth of his most recent digression. As the play unfolds, the inestimable damage he has done to Molly begins to lend a sinister dimension to his character, yet Frank remains more or less oblivious to the injury his quixotic pursuits have caused.
Judgment clouded by ambition, the extent to which we see only what we wish to see, and the relationship between seeing and understanding are among the most poignant themes in Molly Sweeney. Along the way, the play raises provocative questions about how one relates to the world, and struggles to find a safe place within it.