Published in Gay and Lesbian Times August 8, 2002
“An artist is a magician,” says Irish writer James Joyce (in the semi-factional “Travesties” (currently at North Coast Repertory Theatre). That metaphor is enacted in Irish playwright Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer.”
The 1979 drama concerns the travels and travails of ‘The Amazing Francis Hardy,’ the titular healer, whose ‘performance’ is part gift, part con, and whose story seems to symbolize the artist’s fragile dependence on the accident of talent. Any gift, spiritual or artistic, is often both an uncertain blessing and a curse. Just ask Hardy’s wife/mistress Grace and his manager, Teddy, who have endured decades of Frank’s swinish behavior. We hear from each of the three in turn, in four monologues that comprise the dour, talky play.
After slogging through years of one-night stands in Wales and Scotland, Hardy chooses to return to his native Ireland, in the hope of restoring his fading power. He should have listened to James Joyce (not in a play this time), who once said, “It is dangerous to leave one’s country but still more dangerous to go back to it, for then your fellow-countrymen, if they can, will drive a knife into your heart.” In the case of the fictitious Hardy, Joyce turned out to be prescient.
In this multiple monodrama, we get different sides of the same series of adventures, a kind of “Rashomon” retelling of events that led up to the harrowing homecoming. With its slow, tortuous recountings, bleak, sad tales, shifting perspectives and competing realities, the play is clearly a forebear of XXX’s “The Weir,” another Irish storytelling marathon.
Frank’s monologues bookend the play. When we meet him, he’s a dissipated drunk, tormented by an artist’s self-doubt and scalding inner pain. He tells us that he has, on occasion, demonstrated the gift of healing. But Michael Rudko never exhibits the charisma that would convince us of his artistry or the dangerous, irresistible edge that has kept his companions doggedly loyal. We have to wait the whole evening to find out what really happened in Ballybeg… but is his story true?
Second up is Grace. Lizbeth Mackay is persuasive as a bitter, broken woman, but not as credible a former patrician, who left her cushy life and law degree to follow Frank. With all the pain and anguish she’s been made to suffer at his hands, she can barely be with him — or without him. Her love is deep, desperate, and self-destructive. Hers is the bane of living with, but not being, an artist.
As an antidote to the relentless gloom, the second act opens with light-hearted Teddy, the seedy showbiz agent who’s stayed with the fractious couple all these years out of a devotion even he can’t fully understand. He’s an amusing and likable huckster, a survivor and self-proclaimed ‘philosopher,’ who shocks us when he rages and rails at the injustice of life. His tale ends darkly, too, but he’s the one bright spot in the evening, and Tim Donoghue gives a compelling performance
Though bleak and despairing, the play is powerfully written, often brutal, occasionally funny (in Teddy’s monologue, anyway), frequently imagistic and poetic. The language is so evocative we don’t really need to see these three interact to know what it would be like. But that would add drama; it’s a slow slog through the first act.
In this stark production (designed by Robin Sanford Roberts, directed by Seret Scott, dimly lit by David Lee Cuthbert), the actors appeal to us directly, to make us complicit in their shifting versions of the truth. We become like visitors to a healer; we have faith in the process, and we want to believe that what we see and hear is true. This play tests our endurance and credulity. Only the most steadfast will find salvation.
“FAITH HEALER” runs through August 25, on the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage; 619-239-2255.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.