Keen Company has revived Brian Friel’s “Molly Sweeney,” with the company’s artistic director Jonathan Silverstein doing the directing. Friel’s play is powerful, and a good cast has been assembled. Yet, while I appreciate and recommend this presentation, it doesn’t reach the heights of the previous staging by the Irish Repertory Theater that I saw and reviewed (See Search).
Pamela Sabaugh is quite lovely and delicate in the title role of a woman who has been blind since childhood and Molly talks directly to the audience to tell how she learned to cope, with much of her narrative very lyrical, thanks to Friel’s sensitive writing, including Molly’s loving description of how helpful her father was in teaching her to recognize flowers.
Paul O’Brian excellently plays Mr. Rice, who as a doctor tells how Molly’s husband Frank came to him urging him to try surgery to restore Molly’s sight. He also makes clear how important a victorious outcome would be to his life and reputation. Rice also talks directly to the audience—that’s the style of the play, with characters not interacting, but giving individual narrations as they appear together on stage.
Frank Sweeney is played by Tommy Schrider, and when he tells his side of the story he is as intense and talkative as Mr. Rice has described him. Frank also tells of a friendship he has, and the writing about this seems a bit of a detour from the essence of the drama.
The most thrilling part of the play is after the surgery when Molly recounts step by step the process by which she realizes that she can now see and little by little learns to encounter what she had never experienced before. Friel’s writing here is especially superb and Sabaugh makes the most of it.
But Molly’s story has a downside. Molly becomes a case in which the sight regresses, and there is the problem of someone who has learned to cope while blind but just can’t psychologically handle the new situation of being able to see all that is enveloping her, and that leads to illness.
At the end of “Molly Sweeney” there is a speech Molly gives about her feelings and her life, and it is crucial to the impression left on the audience. However, at the performance I attended, Sabaugh, in her effort to be very intimate, spoke so softly and was positioned so far back on stage that it was necessary to strain to catch her lines. Perhaps it is different on other nights, but on this occasion the conclusion was too wispy.
Even though the acting in this production is fine, my memory is that the three in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s staging by Charlotte Moore were a more powerful unit, including the remarkable actress Geraldine Hughes luminous as Molly, and Jonathan Hogan superb as Mr. Rice, with the excellent Ciarán O’Reilly as Frank.
That said, I still urge seeing this new revival, given the quality of Friel’s play and the affability and expertise of this particular cast. At Theatre Five, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed October 24, 2019.