Brian Friel explored the spaces between people long before the term “physical distancing” entered the lexicon. Faith Healer, his haunting quartet of monologues from 1979, takes emotional distance as its main subject. It proves a near-ideal vehicle for the Old Vic’s In Camera series of internationally live-streamed productions, as the laser focus of the lens provides the intimacy the play requires.
Not every work of theater translates harmoniously to the realm of Zoom, as the last six months have proved repeatedly (and in some cases, frustratingly). Yet, Faith Healer — which can feel somewhat static when mounted under traditional circumstances — benefits from the ability to capture an actor’s whispered voice, without him having to push for audibility, or from the camera pressing in to capture every nuance of a particular facial expression. Matthew Warchus is as subtle a film director as he is sometimes broad when working onstage; he understands how to modulate the experience so that everything lands just right.
Faith Healer creates drama through storytelling. Three characters, interconnected yet isolated, recount the same event, with slight variations. Memory is scrutinized, questioned, ignored. The people never interact with one another, yet it becomes clear they’ve made insurmountable impressions on each others’ lives; they tell their stories from different times and places, one at a time, but those who aren’t speaking remain heavy presences, lingering in the ether. (Rob Howell’s spare, discrete triptych of a set was likely designed with social-distancing requirements in mind, but it functions perfectly in underlining separation and loneliness; Howell also did the pitch-perfect costumes.)
The figure of the title — genuine mystic or mountebank, depending on your encounter and interpretation — is The Fantastic Francis Hardy, who travels rural Scotland and Wales earning his living by laying on hands. Friel marks him as an unusual street preacher. He plays Fred Astaire’s “The Way You Look Tonight” at revival meetings and recites the names of country villages as if speaking in tongues. Whether or not his powers are real hardly matter. He is charismatic and haunted; his audience cannot help being drawn to him.
Frank is the only character who speaks twice, at the beginning and end. Virtually unrecognizable beneath a grizzled gray beard, Michael Sheen mesmerizes from his first entrance, down a skinny catwalk that bisects the Old Vic’s empty auditorium and stands in for a country meeting hall. Those watching become his latest marks.
Sheen doesn’t make it easy for us to distinguish when Frank is speaking genuinely and when he is engaging in his mercurial manipulations. His eyes, seen in tight close-up, burn as he recounts the glory of healing a lame man, how he “watched him become whole again.” A moment later, he suggests disdain for anyone who would trust him and questions whether he’s ever had a legitimate experience in his twenty-year career. Sheen’s balance of glee and disgust is revolting and fascinating, as is the casual cruelty he describes toward his devoted helpmeets — his mistress, Grace (Indira Varma), and manager, Teddy (David Threlfall).
Grace and Teddy offer variations on Frank’s main theme in successive monologues. Varma brings some much-needed layering to an underwritten and slightly stereotypical role, a self-sacrificing woman addicted to the love of a destructive man. Her performance starts with a dose of dry humor: “I have a lot to be thankful for,” she intones, all while pickling herself in whiskey in a ratty bedsitter. Her emotions move to seething as she recounts Frank’s inhumanity — the fact that she’s actually his wife, for example, although he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of their marriage. Varma’s Grace cannot understand why Frank holds her in thrall; her own lack of clarity repulses her. Yet, she cannot banish the pity and love she still feels, especially when remembering their tragic final night together. (In that moment, the lighting, by Tim Lutkin and Sarah Brown, turns absolutely chilling.)
Threlfall evokes vaudeville tropes embedded in the writing to provide a welcome dose of comic relief, but his performance runs deeper as he marvels at a seminal event in his relationship with Frank, a night in Wales when the huckster supposedly cured all ten penitents in his audience. The buoyancy of that night contrasts the fateful “homecoming” that Dublin-born Frank faces in Ireland, where he meets a grisly end. As is often the case in Friel’s plays, Ireland is both life-sustaining and dangerous; the characters each describe how the visit momentarily revives them, before bringing on the darkest moment in their shared lives.
That moment is given its full, vivid due in Sheen’s final monologue, in which Frank himself goes beyond faith healing and experiences something closer to transfiguration. His performance and Warchus’s steadily built yet unobtrusive direction underline a driving theme of the play, and of the subject itself: that which one believes, which provides even a momentary glimpse of hope, has value, whether or not it’s strictly real. The three figures in Faith Healer hold onto the stories they need.
As it seems increasingly likely that live theater will not be returning anytime soon — at least not in the United States — thoughtfully produced, thrillingly acted productions like this will grow even more important in sustaining our connection to the art form. More companies need to follow suit. Few will do it as well as the Old Vic, I imagine, but I want to see them try.