With Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer,” the Irish Classical Theatre Company plays to its greatest strength, formidable Irish drama featuring great acting. The 1979 play by the author of “Philadelphia Here I Come” (1964) and “Dancing at Lughnasa” (1990) is unconventional in its form. We are told the same story by three narrators in four monologues. There is no action.
As an evening of storytelling, “Faith Healer” arguably falls outside the definition of even being a play. This is an entirely expository experience, and it is a powerful one.
What we get is revelation of character. Exacting, perplexing, illuminating, and at its best, thrilling revelation of character. For as these three people tell their versions of the life, career, and untimely death of Frank Hardy, an Irish faith healer, each makes distortions, mistakes, or even tells lies in a manner more revealing than any intends.
We are greeted through the darkness by Frank Hardy himself. He speaks an incantation of the names of towns to which he has traveled with his spiritual medicine show before laying out what we come to suspect might be the most unreliable version of events. Naturally, he presents his most idealized self.
He is followed by Grace. Frank described her as his mistress. She describes herself as his wife. He had also told us that she is English. She turns out to be just as Irish as he, but rather more upper class. Grace’s family disapproves of Frank.She tells us about Frank’s great charisma and talent, but also his unreliability and alcoholism.
After an intermission, the third character arrives, Teddy, who is Frank’s manager. Teddy lifts the spirit and weight of the evening with a monologue that begins with light-hearted comedy, before it ends with heartbreaking regret. Finally, Frank returns to conclude the tale.
Three impressive actors play the roles.
Paul Todaro is perfectly cast as charismatic but disheveled, narcissistic but woefully insecure Frank Hardy. Margaret Massman is a powerhouse as a woman who allows her life to be consumed by the love she cannot escape for a man she cannot abide. Vincent O’Neill makes a welcome return to the stage as the impish and philosophical Teddy, the cockney manager who amusingly tells us of his vaudeville career, representing a pigeon whisperer and a bagpipe playing whippet. Teddy tragically and unintentionally reveals why he cannot simply cut unreliable Frank loose.
Ultimately, “Faith Healer” is a tragedy. Our flawed hero will suffer the consequences of his insecurities and will drag those who love him down with him.
Frank tells us that he has a remarkable gift to heal, but it’s an unreliable gift, one that fails to yield results nine times out of ten and which might be leaving him. He tells us that he has been patching together a living, traveling from town to town with his mistress, Grace, and his manager, Teddy. He gives one-night performances in small Scottish and Welsh towns – never Irish. He doesn’t perform in his native country. We hear the story of a night when Frank healed an entire audience of nine or ten people and of a fabulous stay at a posh hotel that followed. We hear of the birth and burial of a stillborn child. We hear of Frank’s fateful return to Ireland and how his interaction with a drunken party of wedding revelers turns tragic.
The details in the three versions of the story do not line up. Is Grace Frank’s mistress or his wife? Did Frank’s mother die while he was on the road or was it is his father? Who tended to the details of the baby’s death? And who decided that Frank’s incongruous entrance music should be Fred Astaire singing “The Way You Look Tonight”?
The chilling power of the evening derives from its unlikely relatability. This is a play about faith, but also about insecurity and loss of faith. This is a play about healing, but also about the human capacity to inflict unfathomable injury upon those we claim to love. This is a play about the greatest human weakness, our proclivity for forgiving ourselves and our own trespasses, while unforgivingly blaming others for our disappointments, and wantonly running roughshod over them.
When, in the play’s final moments, Frank finally advances toward his destiny, under the intensity of Jayson Clark’s excellent lighting design, we are left to ponder, how we should measure the meaning and value of a life.
The direction, by Josephine Hogan is excellent. The characters are perpetually on the move, like sharks who might die if they were to stop gliding through the dark water — or maybe like lost souls traveling from town to town, fearful to stop in one place for too long.
Todaro brilliantly delivers Frank’s opening monologue with soulful sadness and an undercurrent of subversive humor. He skillfully walks that fragile line on which a loathsome person can be irresistibly charismatic.
Massman is an excellent actress who arrived on the Buffalo theater scene as if out of nowhere to claim a succession of major roles. She was marvelous in “Tribes” and “The Thin Place” at Road Less Traveled. She is marvelous here. She advances into the space, taking it over and imposing her monologue as a corrective, asserting her own painful, even desperate version of events with emphatic insistence.
After the intermission, the mood is lightened with O’Neill’s playful and charming rendering of Teddy. O’Neill exudes impish charm. He deftly maneuvers a sleight of hand in which the character who seems to have the most superficial frivolity is revealed to have the greatest depth. This is a masterful performance.
Each actor takes the stage as if doing battle with life, with truth, and with the audience that sits in the darkness as an unstated judge and jury. Each is first-rate.
Contemporary taste might insist that there be action of some sort, particularly in a play that lasts more than two hours. O’Neill’s nonchalant yet mischievous stage business of reaching for successive bottles of beer nearly serves as a subplot in this regard, but the reality is that the story itself, with its twists and deceptions must hold the audience. The production only falters in the clumsy transition between scenes.
Hogan and set designer Spencer Dick have concocted a marvelously stark space of gray, punctuated by Clark’s adroit interaction of light and shadow. While set pieces effectively define the three settings, an empty church, and two sitting rooms, the turnaround between scenes, as we wait in half-darkness for all this clutter to be removed and replaced, kills the valiantly earned momentum. Yes, it is difficult to design for the circular Andrews Theatre, but this is an instance when nothing would have been something more, right down to the oft mentioned faith healer banner, which — hung too high to be logical and at too steep an angle to be visible to half of the audience — becomes a mere annoyance. In a circular space, this artifact of the life and careers of our three characters could have been discarded to the floor, or left to our imaginations.
I recognize that a play as static as “Faith Healer,” so fully focused on character, might not thrill everyone, but it thrilled me. It was a treat to see three superior actors, directed with insight, sensitivity and even humor when required, landing one of the great theatrical character studies of our time with such confidence and skill. The intimacy of the Andrews Theatre heightens the experience, bringing us close to three expert performers as they assay Friel’s mesmerizing story with cool conviction and feverish intensity. If you are mesmerized by expert storytelling, I recommend “Faith Healer.”
-Anthony Chase, Senior Critic for the Buffalo News