The great Irish playwright Brian Friel was at his core a storyteller with a wonderful sense of the tension between nostalgia and suffering. The volatile union of these two conditions runs through his most well-known work like Dancing at Lughnasa and Translations, and carries throughout his oeuvre, emerging, among elsewhere, in Freedom of the City, The Home Place, and Lovers.
But nowhere is Friel more himself than in his monologues. The most arresting moments of Lughnasa are the narrative passages offered by an adult man looking back on his childhood, and his monologue play Faith Healer is rife with haunting, fearsome pathos.
At present, this uniquely moving preoccupation of Friel’s is on full display in New York with Keen Company’s production of Molly Sweeney. A three-character monologue play like its predecessor Faith Healer, Molly Sweeney is invested above all in people and their stories. As its story unfolds, we find not only that it is a play more about people than events, but even more so that it is a play about storytellers. Friel never explains what strange compunction drives these three harried souls to tell their interlaced story, but the play suggests that something urgent motivates them to the stage, a need to be heard and perhaps understood.
Under the direction of Jonathan Silverstein, Keen Company offers a graceful, compelling production, full of the sort of human depth and messiness that Friel is so interested in examining. Although Silverstein’s three-person cast never interacts, each performer makes clear how inescapably intertwined their lives are, and how their complex shared story makes the task of each understanding themselves considerably more difficult and perhaps frightening.
The story that unfolds over the three monologues delivered intermittently throughout the play focuses on Molly (Pamela Sabaugh), a forty-one-year-old blind woman who marries Frank (Tommy Schrider), a man whose penchant for many enthusiasms turns quickly to the pursuit of restoring Molly’s sight. Since she was born with sight only to lose it before her first birthday, Molly’s case is at least theoretically possible, and so enter Mr. Rice (Paul O’Brien), a formally ambitious eye surgeon who has retreated to the sleepy, rural northwest corner of Ireland after some personal and professional tragedy.
As each character takes turns telling their individual and collective story, we learn about the courtship between Frank and Molly, the excitement that rose in Mr. Rice for the chance to restore vision to the blind, the surgery and its aftermath. But throughout, we learn mostly about these people, and most poignantly about Molly. Sabaugh shows us a quiet woman, content in her dark world, but suddenly swept up into the adventure of two men with overbearing ambition. At first, she participates in the pursuit of sight mostly, it seems, on a lark, to enjoy the adventure shared by Frank and Mr. Rice. Eventually we see her grow introspective, finding and expressing her own fraught self. Sabaugh’s Molly travels an impressive range as the character moves through a series of events that will affect her life irreparably.
O’Brien too offers a fascinating Mr. Rice, at once censurable and pitiable for the same ambition that he at one point dubs hubris. Frank is a bit of an outlier in the story because he seems the least self-aware, the least willing to be honest with himself. In this capacity, Schrider does excellent work to find hints of that difficult self-reflection, and share those important glimpses with his audience.
Of course, though, the big question with a monologue play is the quality of the storytelling: can interlacing monologues really keep our attention for more than two hours. Silverstein and his company meet that challenge elegantly. Friel is a great storyteller, but this cast responds admirably to the great challenge of bringing that story to life. Across a winding story with great ebbs and flows of emotion, Silverstein’s cast proves warm and regularly gripping. Lights, sets, and costumes are all effectively subtle and unobtrusive: the work of the play must be achieved by its performers.
In the hands of Keen Company, this Molly Sweeney rises to Friel’s lofty ideals of humans needing to tell their stories.