Seeing isn't Always Believing in Long Wharf's Stellar Production of Molly Sweeney
By Amy J. Barry
Molly Sweeney is a beautifully conceived play that makes us stop and marvel at what we take for granted - our eyesight. And by seeing the world through the eyes of Molly, who has been blind since infancy, find our notions of what really matters in this life completely turned upside down.
The Irish Repertory Theatre production, written by Brian Friel (Dancing at Lughnasa and Translations) premiered at Dublin’s The Gate Theatre in 1994. Under Charlotte Moore’s clear and focused direction—in keeping with the thematic concerns of the drama—Long Wharf’s production feels relevant and meaningful with well-drawn characters that we connect with and care for.
The three-person ensemble is comprised of Molly Sweeney (Simone Kirby) flanked by her doctor, Mr. Rice (Jonathan Hogan) and her husband Frank Sweeney (Ciaran O’Reilly). The play takes place in Donegal, Ireland but could be anywhere. The unchanging set is simple: Each character stands or sits under a window, and there is no coincidence in James Morgan’s thoughtful scenic design that Molly’s window opens out to the light and the men’s windows shut down.
We discover at the onset that Molly has only ever experienced the environment surrounding her through touch, taste, sound, and smell. She’s about to undergo an operation to restore her sight that she is being pressured into by her doctor and husband.
The characters each tell their parallel stories - there is no interaction between them, which makes the drama even more riveting because we are experiencing it through each character’s own “eyes,” and perceptions and are therefore left to draw our own conclusions about what is fact and what is illusion.
Molly - in an exuberant, affecting performance by Kirby - is a happy, free-spirited soul in spite of, or as we learn, because of, her disability. She is 41, married, has a successful practice as a massage therapist, and loves to swim. She describes her life as a full life, in which she’s never felt deprived, and literally stops to smell the flowers. She’s even able to identify them by color and name - something her loving father taught her to do as a child that helped heighten her other senses - including her sense of optimism.
Mr. Rice, on the other hand, is serious and brooding and very concerned about his standing in the medical profession. Early on he asks the prophetic question about Molly’s upcoming surgery that the entire play is based upon: “What does she have to lose?” He sets us up to dislike Frank, informing us that he liked Molly at once but didn’t like her husband - “her blindness was his cause.”
But when we meet Frank, a cheese-maker, who goes off on a tangent about Iranian goats never adjusting to Irish time, we’re surprised that he’s actually passionate, smart, and funny, and not so unlikable. He isn’t fond of the doctor, either, talking about his “swanky accent” and how “I couldn’t warm to him.”
Hogan and O’Reilly both do a wonderful job portraying solid, sympathetic characters. They are both fixers, controllers, fascinated and ruled by science, which is why they push each other’s buttons. But they also both care deeply for Molly and want what they perceive as best for her, unable to understand or accept that only she deeply, intuitively knows what that is.
Molly agrees to the surgery because she is a woman and a pleaser, and can’t help but give in to the insistent men in her life, although she knows if she could suddenly see, she would have to create a whole new world of her own.
The suspense mounts as the bandages are about to be removed. But then we realize, we know the outcome, don’t we? Molly’s eyes have been half- closed throughout the play as she recounts her story. It is not about being blind and then the miracle of sight - it is about something much bigger and more nuanced.
Following surgery, her sight partially restored, she quickly discovers that she’s losing her grip on the reality that she’s created, the so-called blind world that she has navigated with such ease and confidence.
“Small unexpected joys that passed so quickly, no time to savor them,” she recalls. “It was a very disarming and even alarming world.”
Mr. Rice finally realizes that what Molly had to lose was huge, “everything of the life she had constructed, trying to compose another life beyond disappointment.”
And when we leave the theater after this moving and heartfelt performance, we may also never see the world in quite the same way.
Performances of Molly Sweeney continue through Oct. 16 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. For tickets and more info call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online visit www.longwharf.org.
This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers Oct. 6, 2011 and is online at Zip06.com.