By Irene Backalenick
A miracle! A blessing! Sight is restored to a middle-aged woman who has been blind since infancy.
But is it a blessing? Playwright Brian Friel's disturbing play explores this question. Now in revival at Long Wharf, it is an Irish Repertory Theatre production under Charlotte Moore's direction.
Each of three characters, seated on three separate stages, gives his version of the story. Molly Sweeney is the blind woman, and the two men in her life are Mr. Rice, the doctor, and Frank Sweeney, her husband. Both are eager for the operation which may turn her dark world into light and shadow. Each has his own selfish reasons to hope for success.
Frank is an enthusiastic, well-meaning loser, who has pursued numerous lost causes - with his wife’s gain of sight the latest cause. The sad alcoholic Rice has a shattered medical career which could be redeemed by Molly's operation.
The operation is in fact a success. But Molly, who has lived in a tactile world, identifying everything by touch and smell, must now learn to identify the world visually. She has left her safe, comfortable dark world for a daunting - in fact, overwhelming - challenge. Ultimately, pushed on all sides, she is shattered, and retreats into mental illness.
The Friel story is inspired by a true case, narrated and published by Oliver Sacks. And the question emerges: is it in fact wise to attempt such change in any one's life? In Molly's case, she is pushed on all sides to adjust to her new world, but never given the necessary psychotherapeutic help. Could she have been saved? Her retreat into darkness is both physical and psychological, it would seem.
In this production the performances are believable, highly professional, as they play out Friel's fully-fleshed-out characters. Simone Kirby as Molly is indeed poignant. Ciaran O’Reilly as Frank is a likeable clown. And Jonathan Hogan is convincing enough to hold one's attention throughout.
But both the staging and the format work against the viewers' empathizing with the characters. In Friel's limiting format, each character offers a separate monologue - and dramatic format, with a give-and-take exchange, is missing. And the staging, under Moore's direction, has a cold, distancing style. The staging is indeed sterile, with each character backed by a window that looks out on nowhere. It could be an office, a waiting room, a Purgatory.
Not that the story itself lacks poignancy. This reviewer had seen a production of the show years ago and was shattered by the experience. This time around, it is play of ideas which comes across most strongly, making for an intellectual rather than emotional experience. And Friel, in whatever voice he chooses to use, is still a formidable, foremost Irish playwright.