By David A. Rosenberg
Playwright Brian Friel has been called “the Irish Chekhov.” Like his idol, Friel uses language to reflect emotional concerns for characters whose pasts are clouded and futures uncertain.
Based on “To See and Not See,” an actual case study by Oliver Sacks, “Molly Sweeney” consists of three static, overlapping monologues. Molly, who’s been blind almost from birth, is married to Frank, “an ebullient fellow, full of energy and inquiry” with all sorts of schemes up his sleeve (raising goats, saving whales, living in Ethiopia).
Into their lives comes Mr. Rice, an ophthalmologist and boozer whose wife left him for another doctor. Now working in a provincial hospital in Ballybeg, County Donegal (Friel’s fictional Irish town), he grasps the opportunity to redeem his life and career by restoring Molly’s sight.
But, by interfering with the natural, though unwelcome course of Molly’s life, all three characters learn uncomfortable lessons. After all, “seeing isn’t understanding” and even the word “sight” has many meanings. Molly wants to visit the land of vision, then return home to her own, less terrifying world, not live “on a borderline between fantasy and reality.”
As Molly, Simone Kirby sidesteps the role’s sentimentality. Her Molly is firm yet lyrical, completely lacking in self-pity. As Frank, the energetic Ciaran O’Reilly doesn’t shy from the role’s inherent contradictions. At home he’s a doting husband but the world tempts him to become a big shot. Jonathan Hogan is a straight-forward, not at all seedy Mr. Rice.
One could ask for more nuanced direction by Charlotte Moore. By emphasizing the work as a case study, she rushes its deep, intertwined emotionalism. James Morgan’s stark set of three separate platforms is backed by different windows. The lighting design by Richard Pilbrow and Michael Gottlieb is particularly helpful to the play’s seesawing between worlds of reality and fantasy.