[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
April 18 - 25, 2001
| reviews | listings | hot links |

Eyesight to the blind

Molly Sweeney feels inert

by Steve Vineburg


By Brian Friel. Directed by Jeff Zinn. Set designed by Todd P. Canedy. Lighting by Christopher Ostrom. Costumes by Kristin Hubacz. With N. Rose Liberace, Paul Wildman, and Andrew Dolan. At Worcester Foothills Theatre, through April 29.

Molly Sweeney In Molly Sweeney, by the Irish playwright Brian Friel, a blind Ballybeg woman has her sight partially restored by an ophthalmologist defying the odds and medical history. (Among

those who lost their sight at an early age, only twenty recorded cases in a millennium have successfully reclaimed it.) But he finds that the cure is literally worse than the disease: it plunges her into confusion and despair and from there into physiological trauma as well. Friel handles his subject with intelligence, and the three characters -- Molly, the patient; her husband Frank, for whom the rekindling of her sight is the latest in a lifelong series of causes; and the doctor, Rice, an aging alcoholic the downward curve of whose career is linked to his wife's leaving him for one of his colleagues -- rhyme with each other in teasing, suggestive ways. Molly senses the essence of things she can't see, whereas the two men are blinded by the limitations of their own understanding. If you saw a description of the play in a catalogue or on a season poster, you might well be fascinated, and the Foothills production, directed by Jeff Zinn, is gracefully done. Yet it doesn't make for a compelling evening in the theater. I found myself drifting in and out of the play, and I don't think the fault lies with Zinn or with his trio of actors -- N. Rose Liberace as Molly, Paul Wildman as Rice, and Andrew Dolan as Frank -- but with Friel.

Friel has chosen to render the material in a series of monologues delivered to the audience. His intention is to present three overlapping points of view so that we can understand what the operation means to each of the three characters, and also so we can see the world through each set of eyes. You can grasp easily why this approach is so important to Friel: his play is about perception, and shifting voices is the most basic way to make sure we distinguish between the different perceptions of the characters. For instance, Rice barely alludes to his alcohol consumption; without the observations of the Sweeneys, we'd never guess that he's already reeking of whiskey at ten o'clock in the morning. And then, Molly's method of knowing an object or a place is so unconventional for those of us who are sighted that only her own words could clarify it for us. But a play consisting solely of monologues is a tricky proposition, and this one is exasperating. We want to see how the characters relate to each other -- how they deal with each other's ways of walking through the world. It isn't sufficient for Molly and Rice to tell us about their impressions of each other; we want to experience how they navigate those impressions as they develop the relationship of doctor and patient.

This is a more difficult problem when it comes to the relationship between Molly and Frank. Frank's description of their first date is the most intriguing piece of writing in the play. He recounts how much he debated with himself about where they should spend the evening. Would a meal be the best sensory treat you could offer a blind woman -- who, he figures, experiences objects sequentially -- or a walk in the park? He decides to take her dancing: "Forget about space, distance, who's close, who's far, who's approaching. Forget about time. This is not a sequence of events. This is one continuous, delightful event. Nothing leads to nothing else. There is only now. There is nothing subsequent. I am your eyes, your ears, your location, your sense of space. Trust me." There's something sweet -- in a lopsided, nerdy kind of way -- about the way Frank reasons out the logic of a date with a blind woman beforehand. But there's something creepy about this speech, too: the idea that, from the very first, he places himself in the position where Molly relies on him to define the shape of the evening. But with the play broken up into monologues, we never get a chance to see how these conflicting impulses (if, in fact, they are conflicting) work themselves out in their relationship. I never even believed these two were husband and wife. The play doesn't suggest what their sexual connection might be like; it has no way to do so.

All three of the actors in the Foothills production give perfectly creditable performances, but only Andrew Dolan as Frank provides a fully physicalized portrait of his character -- gangly, awkward, earnest, easily distracted. You look at this man, and his shambling, intent presence hints at the kind of person for whom love and political commitment are inseparable. (Most of us have probably encountered a few Frank Sweeneys.) Both Liberace and Wildman read their speeches convincingly enough, and I imagine that if Friel had provided some dramatic space for them to interact in, they would have risen to the occasion. But without that space, the play feels inert.

Steve Vineberg can be reached at svineber@holycross.edu.

| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 2000 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.