Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, April 2004
The production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer currently running at Main Street Stage in North Adams is a powerful and fascinating piece of theatre. Three actors, four monologues, played on a nearly empty stage with the house lights up. The show runs nearly three hours, but I would not have known if it wasn’t my job to check the clock and tell you all such things. I recently sat through a 70-minute play that felt far more endless than this. Such is the miracle of really good theatre.
Francis Hardy (Bruce MacDonald) is an itinerate Irish faith healer traveling through Wales, Scotland and Ireland in the middle of the 20th century. His companions are Grace (Deidre Bollinger), who may or may not be his wife, and Teddy (Glenn Barrett), his manager. Individually each character takes the stage and talks about certain events that occurred in their lives together. History being entirely subjective, each gives a very different take on the stories, each version both illuminating and clouding the audience’s understanding of the reality, if there is such a thing.
There is very little action in Faith Healer. Bollinger sits in one place for most of her monologue, and the characters never share the stage and interact. Each actor is left alone with the audience to spin his or her tale of the past. As with any good storytelling, the listeners must create the action in their own imaginations, but Friel’s words are masterfully chosen to help that process. You will never be bored.
MacDonald, Bollinger, and Barrett are old friends and colleagues who have worked together many times in the past. They prepared this production slowly, over the course of a year, at the Lenox-based Berkshire Actors’ Workshop, led by Patrick Bonavitacola. They did all this hard work because they loved these characters and this story – not because they wanted to sell tickets or entertain the tourists. This is theatre created under ideal circumstances for all the artistically correct reasons. Those facts alone make this production a rare and precious thing.
Luckily MacDonald, Bollinger, and Barrett are also very talented performers. It is a pleasure to see any one of them, and a real treat to see all three. None of them seem to be reciting lines, they each allow Frank, Grace, and Teddy to completely inhabit their beings. You know it is all “an act” but it is hard to believe it.
In this play Friel is exploring both the tenuousness of what we consider reality, and the terrifying burden that comes with a God-given talent. Frank Hardy really can heal people, sometimes. Even he doesn’t understand why or how, but he knows when it is happening, and when it isn’t. He, Grace, and Teddy are literally enthralled by his gift. They cannot live without it, and therefore its unpredictability is terrifying. Like any enormous gift, it is also an enormous burden, and each of them feels its weight.
Terrible things happen to these three people, and wonderful things. They are all fragile souls who buckle in various ways under the pressure they bear. It is hard to watch them and listen to them crumble, but it is profoundly interesting and mesmerizing.
The performances are perfect, but, being a critic, I naturally found a few things to gripe about in this production (it is my job after all). In its previous incarnation at Bellissimo Dolce Restaurant in Pittsfield the setting was very intimate. Main Street Stage is very definitely a traditional theatre where the audience sits in fixed seats facing the stage and the fourth wall is firmly in place. MacDonald and Barrett try to breach it by entering the audience and playing in the aisles, but it just means you have to crane your neck in an uncomfortable position to see them it doesn’t bring them any closer.
The other tactic used to bring actors and the audience together is that the house lights remain on during the performance. This is most helpful to the actors, who normally cannot see the audience beyond the bright glare of the stage lights. As a person who wears glasses for distance vision, I found that there was an annoying glare and reflection from the house lights. And I worried every time I had an itch or a wiggle that the actor on stage could see me clearly and would be distracted.
But these are minor quibbles with a riveting and powerful piece of theatre. "Faith Healer" has relatively short run, so hurry up and get tickets before the opportunity passes you by.
Faith Healer opens April 2 and runs Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through April 16. The show runs just a hair under three hours with one intermission. This is powerful stuff and I wouldn't recommend it for anyone under 16. For reservations or more information call Main Street Stage at 413-663-3240 or visit their Web site. The theatre is located at 57 Main Street in North Adams, a few doors east of Papyri Books.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004