You place an object on the table and ask me to identify it. “That’s an apple,” I say, because my five senses tell me that it looks, feels, smells, tastes, and sounds like what I have been taught to call an apple. Even if I were deprived of one of my senses, I would still have adequate resources to learn what an apple is and to correctly identify it.
How do I know that what I experience as an apple is the same as what you experience? I don’t know. Everyone perceives the world uniquely and no one can share another person’s experience. That is why I write my reviews in the first person. That is why I highly recommend reading the opinions of more than one critic. The more different views you get of an experience, the closer you come to the reality of it.
In Molly Sweeney you get three views of the story of the attempt to restore Molly Sweeney’s eyesight: Molly’s, her husband Frank’s, and that of Dr. Rice, the ophthalmologist who performed her surgery. Molly (Deidre Bollinger) was born with sight, but lost most of it, presumably to an illness, when she was 10 months old. She experiences the world through her remaining four senses, and does it very well. By the time she meets Frank Sweeney (Douglas MacDonald) when she is in her early forties, she is gainfully employed as a masseuse at a local health spa. He is unemployed after a series of grand adventures and projects, such as raising Iranian goats and beekeeping, have collapsed. Molly becomes his new project. He learns all he can about her condition, and then seeks out Dr. Rice (Kevin Wixsom), a once-eminent eye surgeon, and sells him on the idea that he can, and will, restore Molly’s sight, which in turn will resurrect Rice’s career, which has been languishing since his wife ran off with a colleague, an event he never saw coming.
The restoration of Molly’s sight is of vital importance to the two men, but of far less interest to Molly herself. Raised by her father to be independent and use her other four senses to understand and navigate the world, Molly has a home, work, hobbies, and friends. She isn’t at all sure that being able to see will be an improvement. And she is right.
Brian Friel (1929- ), one of Ireland’s greatest living playwrights, was inspired to write this 1994 work after reading an actual case study by Oliver Sachs, but whether or not this situation ever did or could really exist is not what this play is about. This play is about how we see. Molly is clinically visually impaired, but Frank and Dr. Rice are also psychologically blind to many realities in their own lives and in Molly’s. Towards the end of the play Dr. Rice explains that Molly now has Blindsight, a physiological condition in which a person can see, but believes that they cannot. At the very end, when she is confined to an insane asylum, Molly herself says that she cannot tell if she can really see or not, and if what she sees is real or not. With the chutzpah of sighted people, Frank and Dr. Rice believe that they see reality clearly, when what they perceive is neither real nor clear.
Friel presents these stories as past-tense monologues. We hear first from Molly, then from Dr. Rice, then from Frank, and so on until the end of the play. The three characters never speak to each other, although they are all on stage together all the time.
Director John Trainor has elected not to have his actors interact at all. They never make eye contact or physical contact, although there are times when each could enter the other’s narrative to enact a memory. We could see them “in the mind’s eye,” so to speak, but we don’t.
Bollinger, an avowed fan of Friel, gave a fine performance to years ago as Grace in his 1979 play The Faith Healer at Main Street Stage. Here her performance as Molly is excellent. She appears almost to channeling Molly’s soul. She is radiantly beautiful, profoundly moving, and absolutely believable. Trainor places her center stage, and there is no question that the show is hers.
MacDonald gives a scruffy, lively performance as Frank. Molly says she falls in love with Frank for his boundless enthusiasm, and MacDonald embodies this trait impeccably. I have a feeling that Friel imagined an older actor of more gravitas as Frank, but in his loud Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts MacDonald turns Frank into one of those perpetual hippies always out to save the world. You can see him keeping a dozen Iranian goats in his cottage for six months a year (it turns out that Ireland is too cold for Iranian goats) and then dashing off to Ethiopia, where he is planning to stay just long enough to sort out the government before coming home. In between, his project is Molly Sweeney.
Wixsom, who I adored as Pato Dooley in the 2003 Ghent Playhouse production of another great Irish play, Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, is a disappointment here. His performance seemed hesitant and he stumbled on his lines a few times. Granted, I did see the very first public performance. I hope that by the time you see the show he has calmed down and settled into the role.
While Bollinger establishes and maintains a strong Irish brough throughout, neither MacDonald nor Wixsom can match her. Friel sets the play, as he does many of his others, in Ballybeg a remote part of County Donegal. Dr. Rice makes it clear that he is slumming it there, and Frank refers repeatedly to Rice’s “posh accent” and yet both of them sound more American than anything else. In the British Isles speech has long been an important indicator of class and social status, and a proof of education or the lack thereof. The fact that this production lacks that dimension is disappointing but not unusual in American theatre.
The space at the Lichtenstein Center is very intimate, and the lighting, which is gallery lighting and not stage lighting, is arranged in such a way that there are complete blackouts between the monologues, along with the audible sound of light switches being turned on and off. This makes for an abrupt cut instead of a slow fade and creates a definite pause between the speeches. While I understand the mechanics of the situation, for me the blackouts interrupted the flow of the play. I don’t think I would have had any problem understanding the play if all three performers had been lit all the time.
Despite my few quibbles, this a strong production of a powerful play that deserves a wide audience. The question of how we perceive the world, with our senses and with our minds, is such a rich and fascinating one that this play is stimulating throughout.
Molly Sweeney is the last production in the inaugural season of the Town Players Live! at the Lichtenstein Center series, a new tradition which I hope continues. This first attempt to reintroduce live theatre to downtown Pittsfield will mesh nicely with the crowds who gather to see Barrington Stage productions on Union Street and shows at the newly refurbished Colonial. The Lichtenstein Center is beautiful in its own right and filled with interesting visual art to enjoy during intermission. And the ticket price is a remarkably affordable $7, which makes this show the best buy in town.
"Molly Sweeney" presented by the Town Players of Pittsfield runs April 27-29 and May 4-6 & 12 at 8 p.m. at the Lichtenstein Center Reader's Theatre, 28 Renne Street, Pittsfield. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for ages 12 and up. Call 413-443-9279 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006