Intense Faith Healer Opens Berkshire Theatre Festival

Like the Play, Sometimes it Works, Sometimes it Doesn't

By: - May 24, 2009

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Faith Healer by Brian Friel, Directed by Eric Hill. Chesapeake Westveer, Scenic Designer; Charles Schoonmaker, Costume Designer; Dan Kotlowitz, Lighting Designer; J Hagenbuckle, Sound Designer; David Alan Stern, Resident Dialect Coach; Alan Filderman, Casting Director; Jessica Kovell, Stage Manager; Stephanie Hedges, Assistant to the Director.  Cast: David Adkins - Teddy, Colin Lane - Frank, Keira Naughton - Grace.  At the Unicorn Theatre of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA  May 21-July 4, 2009. Information: 413.298.5576   Playing time: 2 hours, 40 minutes with one intermission.
In the world of theatre, the Irish playwrights are like the high priests of the dramatic form. The great masters range from Sean O'Casey to Eugene O'Neill, with a Beckett or Behan thrown in here and there for good measure. None of them make for a light and fluffy evening of theatre, but they all wrote plays that mesmerize audiences and which actors absolutely love to sink their teeth into. Brian Friel's Faith Healer gives audiences a lot to chew on, too.

Kate Maguire says the mission at the Berkshire Theatre Festival is to create theatre "that matters." Friel's play amply fits that description even though it has a checkered history. When it opened in Dublin it ran seemingly forever. Yet the original Broadway debut in 1979 ran a scant 20 performances.

The play has been revived many times, most notably in 1994 at the Long Wharf and three years ago on Broadway where it garnered four Tony nominations and won one. This is not an easy play to offer to theater-goers, but connoisseurs of drama seek it out for its mysterious and convoluted challenges. As with the work of Samuel Beckett, Friel's tale is not all that easy to decipher upon first hearing. Part of the problem lies in the competing versions of the truth each character reveals. Another is the indeterminate time line from which the tale is being told. And a third is that the events being described are never actually portrayed to settle these issues.

Brian Friel's Faith Healer is more of an extended prose poem than a real play. The three actors  each engage the audience in extended monologues about their lives. These are 30-40 minutes each, with double duty for the leader, Francis (Frank) Hardy, the Faith Healer himself, who both opens and closes this tale.

The lead is played by veteran actor Colin Lane who dons the role of Frank with absolute brilliance. He is  a veteran of the Broadway productions of Friel's Molly Sweeney and O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet.  Keira  Naughton, who seems to be the go-to gal for dysfunctional wives, plays his tormented companion of many years. Depending on who is talking she is either his wife, or a mistress. It almost doesn't matter because the emotional damage is the same. The third member of this traveling group is Teddy, the business manager, played with wit and panache by the chamelian-like David Adkins. He provides the sole moments of comic relief in this often dreary, unhappy tale.

Redeeming the brooding mood of the play is the acting which is marvelous, with Colin Lane, Keira Naghton and David Adkins delivering riveting performances. That they were able to memorize such super-sized amounts of material is absolutely stunning. But, Friel, there is just simply too much of it. Dear God, man, have some mercy on both the actors and audiences. Is there any need to have all three characters repeat the same material three times? For example this description by Grace of one stop along the way, in the North of Scotland, also described by Frank and Teddy in similar terms:

"But it is a very small village and very remote, right away up in the north of Sutherland, about as far north as you can go in Scotland. And the people there told me that in good weather it is very beautiful and that you can see right across the sea to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. We just happened to be there and we were never back there again and the week that we were there it rained all the time, not really rained but a heavy wet mist so that you could scarcely see across the road. But I'm sure it is a beautiful place in good weather."

The play ultimately goes beyond what any human mind can easily absorb, much less the emotions that go with it.

As the characters recount their lives, we discover that Frank and Grace are dead, he at the hand of some nasty thugs. Teddy has survived, alone with his memories and an ice box full of beer. As the Faith Healer, Frank muses about his erratic and unpredictable gift of being able to heal some people sometimes, and the others never. Teddy repeats many times how "business is business" and how he keeps a professional distance from the pair,  yet it turns out that he was deeply in love with both Grace and Frank.

So in the end we have a typical Irish broth of unhappy characters becoming increasingly miserable. Not exactly the most delightful way to spend an evening out for most people, but the play is more than the sum of its parts. As directed by Eric Hill, I found many echoes of my own life within the performance.

Then too, were echoes of ritual. The opening lines of Faith Healer, the audience bears witness to Frank Hardy's melodic recitation:

Aberarder, Aberayron,
Llangranog, Llangurig,
Abergorlech, Abergynolwyn,
Llandefeilog, Llanerchymedd,
Aberhosan, Aberporth . . .

This sort of litany was repeated several times during the performance. Grace had her own:

Kinlochbervie, Inverbervie,
Inverdruie, Invergordon,
Badachroo, Kinlochewe,
Ballantrae, Inverkeithing,
Cawdor, Kirkconnel,
Plaidy, Kirkinner ...

These were delivered with a studied cadence and almost Kabuki like minor movements. Except for Teddy, the  play took on the feeling of a mass -  and Heaven help us, a seemingly endless High Mass at that.

During his soliloquy, Frank admits he indulges in this recitation "just for the mesmerism, the sedation, of the incantation." He uses these alliterative rhythms to calm his jangled nerves before a healing session. During her talk Grace lapsed into these same tranquilizing cadences whenever she confronted her most painful memories. They seemed to act like some sort of Irish Valium.

Searching endlessly to understand his own faith, and reconcile it with his doubts, Frank tortures himself and those around him. His self doubts and skepticism became inescapable, except into the bottle or by fleeing reality.

And so the evening passes, sometimes feeling like being forced to sit next to a verbose stranger on a plane, and at other times being more like being let in on deep, dark family secret by a doting aunt.

This play is not at all like sitting down in front of a television and letting blather wash over you. It demands a lot from its audience. Long stretches of intense concentration are required as the story unfolds, other moments require focused straining to hear stretches of dialogue being delivered at sotto voce levels, and on opening night there was the need to filter out the endless coughing of an inconsiderate patron who should have left the theatre an hour ago, all of which took place while sitting motionless for two stretches of more than an hour each.

Like the Faith Healer's gifts which worked at times and not at others, this play has its ups and downs, and in the end, it is exhausting.

But like any good workout at the gym, the rewards come later in the form of new insights and understanding of the human condition.

The Irish playwrights do that to you every time.

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