Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein

Dramatist Brian Friel set his best-known play, DANCING AT LUGHNASA, in a small country cottage that seemed too small to contain the energies of work, music, dance and love that keeps a family going even through hard times and thwarted desires.  In the more somber e MOLLY SWEENEY, Friel again leavens his dialogue with the cadences of rural Ireland. But the play’s framework allows for little in the way of physical movement or interaction between characters. As in a prose piece read aloud, we get accounts, rather than embodiments, of action and incident. When the characters dance, they describe the experience in the past tense.

The titular Molly (Pamela Sabaugh) sits in the center, flanked by the men in her life: her husband Frank (Tommy Schrider), and her eye surgeon Mr. Rice (Paul O’Brien).  The first monologue belongs to Molly, who recalls a happy childhood in the coastal community of Ballybeg. She was close to her father, a judge in the local court system, who fostered in Molly a sense of independence. Sharpening her other senses, Molly grew up learning to recognize different flowers by their shape and odor, to determine her location by touching nearby objects. Much to her mother’s chagrin, her father refused to send her to a school for the blind, but Molly was determined to successfully navigate a world built for sighted people. Carrying her forthright mentality into adulthood, she finds a job and a home to call her own, makes a few friends, and enjoys physical activities, especially  swimming in the ocean. Dating naturally follows, and she ends up marrying the peripatetic Frank. Here’s where things get complicated.

Blessed with high intelligence but not a lot of common sense, Frank has tried his hand at numerous careers but could never make anything stick. In one instance, he attempted to make a living as a fromager. After exhaustive research, he arranged to have what the thought were the world’s finest goats flown specially from the middle east. But his plans  curdled, so to speak, when he discovered that these goats were unable to adapt to their new time zone and wouldn’t give enough milk to pay for themselves. In some ways, his marriage to Molly becomes a new iteration of his Iranian goat project. Frank calculates how a blind person encounters the physical world, and prepares a plan for Molly’s new life in the event that, after experimental surgery, her sight is restored. Similarly, Mr. Rice, though not lacking in compassion, sees Molly largely as a shot at redemption. Once a rising star in the medical world, he has faded into obscurity while watching his fellow scientists gain accolades. His comeback dreams will come true if he pulls off the modern miracle of curing Molly’s disability. What none of the characters – including Molly – are able to foresee is how dramatically her world will change if the operations succeeds.

Sure enough, though everyone is happy at the outcome of the operation, Molly discovers that vision can be a mixed blessing.  Swimming, once Molly’s great source of sensual fulfillment, feels less inspiring now that sight is involved. When Molly sees the type flowers she once gathered her dad, she discovers they’re not as pretty as they were in her mind’s eye. Depression follows, and Frank and Mr. Rice, once so eager to contribute to Molly’s progress, are now powerless to help. As an uncertain future looms, relationships are challenged, and Molly’s path to happiness, ironically, seems to be slipping further out of sight.

Though it’s a bit stereotypical (men are fixers, women are feelers) the plight of Molly and her men is an intriguing one. Blindness as a metaphor runs throughout the story. In his early career, Mr. Rice tells us, he was enamored of with his own medical prowess that he failed to notice that his wife (now, understandably, his ex) felt neglected. Similarly, the quixotic Frank fancies himself a man of vision, but is heavily blinkered when it comes to letting reality sink in.

Under Jonathan Silverstein’s sensitive direction, all three actors make the most of Friel’s intelligent and lilting language. But there are details of the story that seem glaringly absent. For example, we learn little about Frank and Molly’s lovemaking: how it felt when she was blind, how it changed with sight. They don’t quite seem like a real couple. Also the interpolated-soliloquy format keeps the audience at a safe remove.  If the actors had been reading from scripts propped up on music stands, it wouldn’t make much difference. The choice of such a framework is a puzzling one, and seems to work against the theme. After all, Molly is nothing if not tactile. She has learned to make her way in the world using her sense of touch. Yet we have to wait until the curtain call to see the actors make any kind of physical contact. A more theatrical, less literary approach might have helped the story land with more emotional impact.

MOLLY SWEENEY continues through November 16, 2019 at Theatre Row Theaters,
410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Ticket:

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