On the screen, on the stage and in the music hall, we hear a lot in America about the Irish Tale of Woe, which is not a success until you're reduced to crying laughing. "Cry laughing" is a particularly Irish phrase, because no matter which order you start in, the one is not satisfied until it leads to the other.
This tends to result in a love-hate dichotomy for audiences. It's rare that I get a lukewarm reaction to an invitation to see an Irish play or movie. People either jump at the chance, or say something like, "Why would I pay $7.50 to watch two hours of How I Grew Up In Ireland Covered In Me Da's Vomit?" (a.k.a., Angela's Ashes).
Although I myself enjoy the artfully told Irish Tale of Woe every now and again, it's a point well taken. So it's with that much more enthusiasm that I recommend playwright Brian Friel, whose stories dwell primarily in human psychology, and only consequently in his fictional Irish village of Ballybeg.
If you take away the accents and Old World charm, ignore the woolen sweaters and the anecdotal stories involving such unlikely segues as jet-lagged Iranian goats, there's nothing particularly Irish about the story of Molly Sweeney. This intimate cast of three -- 41-year-old Molly, her impulsive husband Frank, and the lonely and learned surgeon Mr. Rice -- could be anybody, anywhere.
Of course, Friel's poetic script, coupled with lively performances by IT players Katherine Hallowell, Milton Papageorge and Michael Woodson, fully embraces its Emerald Isle origins. Papageorge, as the jovial and slightly eccentric Frank Sweeney, nails both the body language and the quick, mocking accent of his autodidactic character. Woodson, as Mr. Rice, does an admirable job of softening his native tongue with an Oxford veneer; while Hallowell strikes the more difficult balance between narrator and silent actress. Across the board, IT distinguishes itself with accents that not only sound natural, but enhanced by regional and educational inflections, and a stage presence that never falters.
The play opens with Molly standing center stage, on a light-dappled set painted with leafless, abstract trees. The only props are three simple, antique chairs and a tea table. Molly, who is blind, recalls learning the names of flowers, in the garden with her father. This is our first introduction to her ability to see, and she lingers over the details, describing how she knows each by touch, by smell, by shape and structure. She calls them by color. So convincing is she in her monologue, that we're not quite sure whether or not she is blind.
The light on Molly fades and moves next to Mr. Rice, the brilliant ophthalmologist, who tells us in no uncertain scientific terms exactly what is wrong with Molly's eyes. Here is the doctor, the arbiter of truth. But next up is Molly's husband Frank, who for all his meandering thoughts and disconnected ideas seems to have the inside story on both Molly and the doc, and this third vision casts doubt again on the other two. One of Molly Sweeney's greatest delights is the way in which each of the characters reveals the others.
All three characters remain onstage throughout the play's two acts, with contrasting monologues that reveal in fragments not only the details of each of these complicated lives, but the plot that brings them all together: restoring Molly's vision. Both visually and contextually, it's a study in light and shadow. And as this multi-layered tale unfolds, the subtext about the difference between seeing and understanding is revealed through a combination of language that is both informed in its science and deeply compassionate. (Molly's unusual condition, as well as several other such right-brain neurological anomalies, are fascinatingly documented in laymen's terms in Dr. Oliver Sach's best-selling book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.)
The result in Friel's case is a rare and beautiful vision, not only of the interior life of an extraordinary woman, but in the fragility of our perceptions of truth and the "real" world.
While conceptually Molly Sweeney raises familiar themes about quality of life, about self-determination and the triumph of vision over appearances, it's definitely not your run-of-the-mill day in the Irish countryside.