Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2009
What is a fact in the context of autobiography? A fact is something that happened to me or something I experienced. It can also be something I thought happened to me, something I thought I experienced. Or, indeed, an autobiographical fact can be pure fiction and no less true or reliable for that...You delve into a particular corner of yourself that's dark and uneasy, and you articulate the confusions and the unease of that particular period, when you do that, that's finished and you acquire other corners of unease and discomfort.
- Brian Friel
Whatever way I look at it, Faith Healer is a hard sell. Yes, it is brilliantly written by the incomparable Brian Friel. And at the BTF it is beautifully staged by Eric Hill and meticulously acted by Colin Lane, Keira Naughton, and David Adkins. But it is also long (three hours, one intermission) and intense. This is not light summer fare. This is theatre to which attention must be paid. Everyone has to work very hard in this production – actors and audience.
More than anything else, Faith Healer is a mystery. Friel and Hill provide us with no answers. The play is structured as four long monologues, there is never more than one actor on the stage. First we hear from “The Fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer” (Lane), then from the woman who claims to be his wife Grace (Naughton), next from his manager Teddy (Adkins), and finally from Frank again. Each tells us a similar story from very different perspectives. Teddy and Grace’s stories agree more with each other’s than with Frank’s, and you begin to feel like a biblical scholar comparing the gospels to find out what it was that Jesus might really have said and done. (In that analogy Grace and Teddy are Mark and Luke while Frank is John.) But in the end all we have are oblique, subjective views of emotionally fraught incidents.
This much is certain. Frank, Grace, and Teddy lived and toured together through Wales and Scotland for twenty years in the mid-20th century (Faith Healer debuted in 1979). All three were dependent on Frank’s “gift” as a faith healer for their lives and livelihoods. At one point Teddy tells us that Grace calls out “Physician, heal thyself” to Frank during a performance, but, while he can occasionally heal others, he cannot heal himself or them. What is astonishing is the amount of faith these three people place in Frank and his abilities.
I had a dear friend, a devout Roman Catholic, who was diagnosed with liver cancer. She was 41 and her four children were between the ages of seven and fourteen. In the two months that elapsed between her diagnosis and her death, she flew to Lourdes to pray to the Blessed Virgin, the Virgin Mother, for a miracle. A local doctor, who was one of her pallbearers, told me later that she would have lived longer if she hadn’t wasted her energy on that trip. She would have bought herself more time with her children if she had allowed nature to take its course rather than seeking divine intervention.
Frank, Grace, and Teddy never speak about any deity or religious faith in relation to Frank’s gift. It is the job of those seeking the healing to provide the faith. At one point Frank opines that people come to him to seek confirmation that they cannot be healed. They have faith that he will fail rather than that he will succeed. And by his own admission, nine times out of ten nothing happens. Nothing at all.
While he occasionally fails to fail the masses, he never fails to fail himself and Teddy and especially Grace, the daughter of a judge who had just qualified as a lawyer when she abandoned herself to a life with Frank and Teddy.
I have been assaulted in recent weeks with a positive avalanche of stage accents, most of them very amateurish and bad. At the BTF, of course, they have a Resident Dialect Coach, David Alan Stern, and things are much, much better. How Frank, Grace and Teddy speak is as important as what they say. Frank in Irish and Teddy is Cockney. We get conflicting information about Grace’s roots, Naughton barely manages to maintain an accent I would place as BBC British.
Both Adkins and Naughton appear regularly on Berkshire area stages, and while Adkins never ceases to amaze me with his ability to complete transform his appearance with every role he inhabits, Naughton always looks and sounds exactly like herself. That is not to say that she is a bad actress because she isn’t, she is excellent here in a harrowing role, but she is always Keira Naughton. Under the greasy grey hair and worn velvet smoking jacket, you see not David Adkins but Teddy the Cockney Manager, whose clients before Frank included a whippet named Rob Roy who played the bagpipes and Miss Mulato and her Pigeons.
Lane’s Frank is sharp in feature and tongue, yet charismatic, as a man like that must be. A native Irishman, Lane has worked with Friel and appeared in a New York production of Molly Sweeney, that writer’s other play consisting of parallel monologues delivered by two men and a woman.
Last summer Adkins appeared on the Unicorn Stage in Waiting for Godot, a play in which, famously, nothing happens. Well ...Godot" is an Andrew Lloyd Weber spectacular compared to Faith Healer Granted, there is more of a plot here, but there is little action – Naughton is seated for the majority of her time on stage – and no interaction. The sets and costumes, by Chesapeake Westveer and Charles Schoonmaker respectively, are drab and minimal because it is up to the actors to enable the audience to envision action they describe and nothing must distract from that.
The last time I saw and reviewed Faith Healer it was a production mounted by three local actors simply because they loved the play and characters. They didn’t expect to sell tickets to tourists. While I have no doubt that Hill and his cast also love this play – I can hardly imagine memorizing and delivering a nearly hour-long monologue if I didn’t feel passionately about it – they are hoping if not expecting to sell tickets to tourists. And tourists who heard about but didn’t get to see the play’s successful 2006 Broadway revival may come, but this is too thorny and demanding a play to be a box office bonanza for the BTF, even in this excellent production. One can only hope that, with a small cast and minimal production requirements, it was also relatively inexpensive for them to produce.
Faith Healer runs through July 4 on the Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs three hours with one intermission and is too long and static to be of any interest to children.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009