MOLLY SWEENEY

MollySweeney424

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: www.telecharge.com

THE HEALING

healing

photo by Carol Rosegg

Written by Samuel D. Hunter

Directed by Stella Powell-Jones

In a premise reminiscent of The Big Chill, THE HEALING follows the a group of friends who reunite to mourn the untimely death of one of their pack.  Laura (Mary Theresa Archibold), Sharon (Shannon Devido), and Donald (David Harrell), Bonnie (Jamie Petrone) now live in different parts of the country and occupy disparate professions. But they have a few things in common; they are each have a disability of one kind or another, and they all went to the same Christian camp when they were kids.  As the mourners gather in the tchotchke-laden house of the deceased (designed with meticulous quirkiness by Jason Simms), the inevitable questions arise. What would cause Zoe, to want to take her own life? What does this mean for the survivors?

Through flashbacks we learn that Sharon tried to help Zoe (Pamela Sabaugh) with her physical and mental afflictions, but had little success. Zoe was a dedicated Christian Scientist who insisted on trying to pray the blues away rather than seek treatment.  This is a big button pusher for Sharon, who still harbors resentments towards Joan (Lynne Lipton), the director of the camp they all attended all those years ago. Also a believer in faith healing, Joan tried to brainwash the kids into believing that their condition was abnormal and ugly, and that divine intervention could make it all go away.

It’s an awful message to force feed children. Yet the question of whether Joan’s behavior truly scarred the kid’s psyches remains unresolved. Most of them, as grownups, seem to be resilient, independent people who lead reasonably fulfilling lives. The ones, like Zoe, that succumb to melancholia, can hardly point to summer camp as the sole source of their pain. Bonnie’s boyfriend Greg (John McGinty), the one outsider in the group, is rightly puzzled by the fact the kids kept coming back to the camp year after year, that their parents never sought to intervene. He receives little in the way of clarification.

Thus Joan begins to feel like a red herring. The real question is whether there’s enough common ground for the former campers to be part of each other’s adult lives.  They also seem to be avoiding the natural impulse to reassess their own lives after the sudden death of someone their own age.  Playwright Samuel D. Hunter does an admiral job of populating his world with likable, true-to-life characters, but he’d get more present-tense energy out of them if he’d the let them the blame game aside and try to harder to reach each other.  Similarly, director Stella Powell-Jones keeps the actors emotionally grounded and keyed into one another, but could stand to prune some of the awkward pauses and move the action forward with greater surety.

Despite its stagnant beats, though, THE HEALING does spark an intriguing debate as to whether religion helps or hurts those in need, and whether “cold stark atheism” is the only alternative to blind faith. The show also provides an introduction to the Theater Breaking Through Barriers ensemble, many of whom are talented writers and directors in their own right. For more commentary, humor and performances by performing artists with disabilities, click on the links below.

THE HEALING continues through July 16, 2016 at the Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets (212) 239-6200.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBRiZ4MFWZY

http://iaintplayin.wix.com/andscene

https://www.youtube.com/user/shannonleigh327

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHa6XylKeCg

http://davidharrellonline.com/reels/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mfQhD4SQ0c

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=010E5OUck2I