Brian Friel’s play Faith Healer begins with a fact about reality that’s difficult to process: sometimes the miracle will happen. Then what?
“Faith healing is a craft without an apprenticeship,” Francis Hardy says, “a ministry without responsibility, a vocation without a ministry.”
Hardy is a traveling hope-destroyer. “A mountebank,” he calls himself, that is someone who mounts a bench to draw a crowd and then tricks them into giving up their money. He roams the villages of Wales and Scotland gathering forsaken, broken people into pubs or meeting-houses, “all identical, all derelict. Maybe in a corner a withered sheaf of wheat from a harvest thanksgiving of years ago or a fragment of a Christmas decoration across a window — relics of abandoned rituals. Because the people we moved among were beyond that kind of celebration.”
People who come not really to be healed, but to prove that their afflictions can’t be lifted, even by a charlatan. He calls them delegates, each one representing ten more. “They want me to endow them with hopelessness,” he says from his bench — that is, the stage. “If we hadn’t come, they would have sought us out.”
It wouldn’t be a bad life — there’s a kind of purity in unadulterated cynicism if you give yourself up to it, and this sleight of hand is no more destructive in the end than selling sugar or counting Facebook friends, so why not?
Because it works sometimes, and that’s a problem.
At the beginning of Quotidian Theatre’s new production of Faith Healer, I felt like one of those delegates. I had come through the rain, around the building, across the parking lot, through a back door into a dark room where I sat with a couple dozen others on small chairs, gazing at a banner that read “The Fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer, One Night Only.” And when Christopher Henley, who plays Frank, began to soothe himself by intoning the names of Welsh villages before telling the story of what had happened in them, it seemed clear that I was meant to see myself as one of those faith-driven villagers. But it wasn’t clear whether the faith was mine or Frank’s, or whether we had come because we had it or because we wanted it.
Producing the play is an act of faith in itself, it seems to me, because it is devoid of action. Frank holds the stage alone for forty minutes, telling us his version of the story. Then Grace, his wife, comes out alone and tells her version. Then Teddy, Frank’s manager, gets his turn. At the end, Frank comes back to wrap things up. Four monologues, delivered in succession. That’s all.
The events are emotionally charged on many levels. Miracles are not ho-hum, nor is the question of faith: is it blindness or sight? Frank says that he got into the faith-healing game when he was young, simply because he could do it. “Occasionally it worked,” he says. “And when it did,… those were nights of exultation, of consummation — not that I was doing good, giving relief, spreading joy,… but because the questions that undermined my life then became meaningless, and because I knew that for those few hours I had become whole in myself, and perfect in myself…”
Those undermining questions aren’t unusual:
Do I really have a gift, or am I just a con-man? Is this skill or an illusion? Or a delusion?
I’m a fraud at bottom, aren’t I?
Silencing those questions, even for a little while, would be addictive. And one imagines that people who can turn those questions off are powerfully attractive — like black holes. Grace and Teddy have both fallen into Frank’s vortex; they may be onstage alone, but he surrounds them, and he overwhelms them.
Each character narrates more or less the same series of events, including Frank’s final performance in an Irish pub, which unfolds like a date with destiny, but the details differ from one version to the next, reminding us that here, as everywhere, the tale is really a portrait of the teller. So even though the form deprives the play of some of theatre’s conventional pleasures, like dramatic action, it enriches the play’s terrain of thought.
It also challenges the actors to do more with less — with nothing but their faces and their voices. Director Laura Giannarelli keeps both Laura Russell, who plays Grace, and Nick Sampson, who plays Teddy, seated most of the time they’re on stage, so they don’t even have the advantage of moving through the space. They just talk.
Russell’s Grace sounds exhausted and defeated most of the time, an emotionally appropriate tone, since life as Frank’s wife or mistress would wear out anybody. But by the time Russell finishes her monologue, forty minutes of exhaustion, there’s not much energy left in the room.
Sampson’s Teddy covers a broader emotional range, perhaps because at least some of the time he talks about something other than his self-destructive love for Frank and Grace, but Sampson struggled with some of his lines on the night I saw the show, and the spotlight that was supposed to illuminate his chair cut in and out, both of which factors made his plight harder to embrace.
Closes May 25, 2014
Quotidian Theatre at
Bethesda Writers Center
4508 Walsh Street
2 hours, 50 minutes with 1 intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
It’s a difficult play, and I salute Quotidian Theatre for stepping up to its challenges. From my side of the stage, the script looks like a tour-de-force in waiting. Its possibilities derive in large part from the limitations Friel imposes on his characters, and its difficulties do too. When the play was first performed, in 1979, on Broadway, it closed after 20 performances, perhaps because it’s very long, and nothing happens. But one senses that something has happened, and that something could happen again: sometimes the miracle works, and all those undermining questions disappear.
Not tonight, but maybe some night.
Faith Healer by Brian Friel. Directed by Laura Giannarelli. Featuring Christopher Henley, Laura Russell, and Nick Sampson. Lighting design by Don Slater. Set design by Jack Sbarbori. Produced by Quotidian Theatre. Reviewed by Mark Dewey