Caught in the act

Faith Healer

By Brian Friel
Directed by Bruce A. Katlin
John Montgomery Theatre Co.
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Michael Koroly

Brian Friel is the theatre's premier poet of tortured memory. This 1979 work of his can be described as a multiple monodrama, with each of the three characters relating directly to the audience. A difficult structure from which to wring drama, it nonetheless works its emotional spell over the audience and was solidly mounted by the Montgomery troupe in this revival.

As the title would indicate, the play concerns a traveling faith healer/mountebank, roving over Scotland and Ireland with his wife and manager. Each tells of a hard life on the road and of brief moments of happiness. Frank, the would-be healer, cynically describes what he does as his ``performance'' or ``the act.'' There were moments, though, where he actually seemed to heal people's affliction amid the quackery of his traveling tent show. This tension between charlatanism and genuine acts of faith lies at the heart of the play and at the heart of Frank's swinish behavior toward those around him. Each character gives a Rashoman-like perspective on this. Tellingly, the wife's and manager's stories are more alike to each other than to his, leaving considerable doubt as to his honesty.

By the end, when Frank reappears to give a final requiem, there's no doubt at all. He is revealed through his lies and by what he doesn't say. A tragic stillbirth detailed by his wife and the manager is never even mentioned by him.

Friel's text is a bit more rambling and tedious than his usual impeccably constructed works, but his fascination with faith as a practical act of survival is contagious.

As Frank, Patrick Hillian (founder of the Montgomery company) yet again proved himself to be one of Off-Off-Broadway's most versatile actors, ever sensitive to the demands of genre. He is especially gifted in emoting a scalding inner pain without ever lapsing into melodrama. He sometimes seemed a bit weighed down by the sheer volume of Friel's words, but this is more a problem with the script than with Hillian's otherwise engrossing interpretive skills.

As the wife, Elisabeth S. Rogers gave a fine account of a person so spiritually frazzled by life as to seem ever on the brink of suicide, yet still inertial enough never to commit the act. She wonderfully physicalized many of the cross-currents in the lines, as when she treats a cigarette as a shaky pacifier.

Richard Fay as Teddy, the manager, was a likable huckster, an honest cad no one can help but be fond of. This made those moments when an uncontrollable emotional outburst erupted seem all the more affecting. Fay turned histrionic at electric moments, and imparted a slick veneer to wry observations like ``ya' stay in show business long enough, ya' become a philosopher.''

Susan Tammany's set design bespoke either a shoestring budget or a ``pure'' vision. Whatever the case, it worked nicely to focus on the actors and afforded director Bruce Katlin some involving movement opportunities.

Laura Lee Ash's costume choices were remarkable in their subtle, finely observed nuance. The hardship of the characters' lifestyle could be clearly seen in details like a torn pocket on Frank's topcoat, the frayed hem of his wife's skirt, or different-colored buttons on her blouse. These sketched in points effectively without being obvious. Also, there was a fine eye for irony in the Celtic crucifix the wife wore. It hung in mocking contrast to the bitter cynicism she spouted. In itself, this conceit actually conceptualized Friel's play quite concisely.

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 1
Costumes 2
Lighting/Sound 1
Copyright 1997 John Michael Koroly

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