Acclaimed Irish playwright Brian Friel is a master wordsmith, captivating storyteller, and consummate observer of the human condition, and that is nowhere more evident than in the Keen Company’s superb production of his 1994 work Molly Sweeney, now playing in the intimate space of Theatre Five at Theatre Row. The heartrending two-act three-hander, directed with impeccable timing and keen sensitivity by Jonathan Silverstein, takes the format of rotating direct-address monologues that highlight Friel’s exquisite poetic language, vivid visual descriptions, and penetrating insights into the psychology and emotions of his damaged characters and their self-defeating behavior.
Blind since infancy, Molly Sweeney leads a life of contentment and independence in small-town Ballybeg, taking delight in her family, friends, work, and the pleasures of the world (especially the flowers) that she is able to perceive through the development of her other senses of smell, touch, hearing, and taste. But all that is about to change when she is encouraged by her overly zealous husband Frank and her ambitious surgeon Dr. Rice – a disgraced heavy-drinking ophthalmologist who has the opportunity to regain his reputation by restoring her sight. What does she have to lose?
A simple evocative design suggests the locale (set by Steven Kem), natural sounds of the region (sound by Fan Zhang), times of day (lighting by Anshuman Bhatia), and distinctive personalities and status of the characters (costumes by Jennifer Paar), while allowing Friel’s words, in the great tradition of Irish storytelling, to fill in the rest. The smart and effective staging also enjoins the audience to envision the entirety of the story in our mind’s eye – as the sightless Molly does. Three superlative characterizations by an all-star cast enable us to do just that, by bringing Friel’s very human figures to life with their gripping delivery, telling body language, gestures, and facial expressions, and spot-on Irish accents (dialect coaching by Amanda Quaid), as they reveal their backgrounds, interactions, and individual perspectives on the events and one another.
In the titular role is the unforgettable Pamela Sabaugh (who, like her character, is a woman with low vision in real life), capturing Molly’s full range of thoughts and emotions, from the joys, hopes, and expectations she feels before the life-altering procedure to the disappointment, anger, and trauma she experiences afterwards. She charms us with her early optimism, irresistible smile, and lilting laughter, then breaks our hearts with her devastating maladjustment and increasing desire to return to the comforting familiarity of her happy and peaceful pre-op existence.
Paul O’Brien paints a poignant picture of regret as the depressed Dr. Rice, a well-spoken and accomplished man who turned to drink after his wife left him for a colleague he thought was his friend. He allows his desire to redeem himself and his waning career to take priority over the compassion he initially felt for Molly, and only rediscovers when it’s too late. And Tommy Schrider is a firebrand as Frank, an autodidact with the Irish “gift of gab,” who constantly digresses in his laughably longwinded stories (“Anyhow . . . “) and can’t seem to stay on track in his “fascinating” but failed enterprises and misguided adventures (of which his determination to have Molly’s sight restored is one). Through their pain and missteps, they teach us the valuable lessons to appreciate what we have, that “seeing is not understanding,” that sight does not necessarily provide insight, and that too often our clearest vision comes with hindsight.
The Keen Company’s profoundly affecting Molly Sweeney is a thinking and feeling person’s production that I can’t recommend highly enough. If you love impactful writing, empathetic acting, and a message that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater, be sure not to miss it.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.