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Issue Date:  May 19, 2006

'Faith Healer' is more blarney than magic

Brian Friel's play offers arresting performances and lots of talk


Frank Hardy’s healing gifts work sometimes, but more often they do not. The same could be said for the Broadway revival of Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer,” at the Booth Theatre through July 30. At times it is involving, but more often than not it’s exhausting.

What works, consistently, is the acting. Ralph Fiennes, Cherry Jones and Ian McDiarmid turn in powerhouse performances. The trouble is they are weighed down with too much material. Clocking in at nearly three hours and presented in four monologues, each character talks and talks and talks beyond what the mind can absorb. I was left drained, not just from the considerable emotions they conveyed, but from the strain of sitting there so long trying to take them all in.

First produced on Broadway in 1979, “Faith Healer” is the story of Frank (Mr. Fiennes), an itinerant, low-budget showman and occasional healer, his long-suffering mistress, Grace (Ms. Jones), and his devoted manager, Teddy (Mr. McDiarmid). The three travel the back roads of Scotland and Wales attracting paltry crowds of despairing people who “had come not to be cured but for confirmation that they were incurable; not in hope but for the elimination of hope; for the removal of that final, impossible chance,” Frank explains. “That’s why they came, to seal their anguish, for the content of a finality.”

These despairing souls are never seen. Frank, Grace and Teddy recount these and other experiences in often conflicting monologues, each character alone on stage for 30 minutes or so telling his or her stories. This sounded to me like an intriguing concept, although perhaps one better suited to a radio play, but I got bogged down in the sheer length of each monologue. The characters were so caught up in telling their stories, veering off into multiple other details of their lives, that it was almost like sitting through three one-person plays. Had the characters been allowed to interact in a traditional play, the long-winded digressions would not have taken place and the focus on the nature of art and healing would have been sharper.

As it is, I felt most drained by Grace, whose anger and grief are overwhelming. She sits in a chair smoking, drinking and frequently crying as she recalls Frank’s cruelty and indifference and the sad fact that she loved him despite his ill treatment. Ms. Jones won the Tony for best actress last year for her portrayal of Sr. Aloysius in “Doubt” and once again puts in a top-notch performance. The effect, though, left me feeling trapped, as if an emotionally needy neighbor had rung my bell wanting to talk and then stayed and stayed and stayed.

By the time of the third monologue, Teddy’s, right after the intermission, my mind was numbing. With Teddy, it was like being stuck next to a lonely person on a plane, or in his down-at-the-heels case it would be a bus, and having to listen to story after story about his life in show business. It was during this scene that the row behind me began to empty until only one woman was left. Had I not been reviewing, I would have joined the exodus.

Mr. Friel’s plays tend to affect me this way. Last summer I saw a revival of “Philadelphia, Here I Come” off-Broadway and found that although it started well, it dragged on too long. I felt this, too, with “Dancing at Lughnasa,” for which Mr. Friel, who is Irish, won a Tony Award for best play. The original Broadway production of “Faith Healer,” by the way, closed after only seven previews and 20 regular performances, while the original Irish production broke box office records in Dublin.

The interesting part of the play is the consideration of Frank’s gift, which is sometimes talked of as art and also show business. I was held most by Frank’s two monologues, one of which opens the show and the other closes it. His gift is elusive, and Frank is not able to pinpoint where it comes from or why he has it any more than more dedicated artists can explain creativity or theologians can explain belief. “Did it reside in my ability to invest someone with faith in me or did I evoke from him a healing faith in himself?” Frank wonders. “Could my healing be effected without faith? But faith in what? In me? In the possibility? Faith in faith?”

Frank doesn’t know.

“Considering that nine times out of 10 nothing at all happened,” he says. “But they persisted right to the end, those nagging, tormenting, maddening questions that rotted my life. And when they threatened to submerge me, I silenced them with whiskey.”

The audience might feel a similar urge, anything to escape from the nagging, tormenting and maddening ramblings of those three misguided souls.

Retta Blaney’s book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors, features interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams and many others.

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2006

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