When I’m in New York, I always make it a point to see the current production at Irish Repertory Theatre in the Chelsea neighborhood, one of the best off-Broadway houses. This week, Irish Rep is streaming a new version of Brian Friel’s sad and beautiful play, Molly Sweeney, directed by artistic director Charlotte Moore, who also directed the company’s 2011 production. The play will be streamed two more times this week.
Set in Ballyweg, Galway, Molly Sweeney is the story of a middle-aged woman who lost her vision completely as an infant and now is offered a surgical solution to restore her sight. Geraldine Hughes plays Molly in a sensitive, luminous performance. Her husband Frank, a garrulous, ebullient man, is played by Irish Rep’s Ciarán O’Reilly and the doctor, Mr. Rice, by Paul O’Brien. Hughes and O’Reilly performed these roles in the 2011 production.
The structure of Friel’s script is ideal for such a virtual production. The three characters never interact with each other and although some productions have had them on stage at the same time, the play also can be designed as a series of monologues, which is Moore’s approach.
Molly appears against a wispy blue background and moves about in the frame, her face tipped upward and her expression convincing you she is blind. She describes how her father taught her about flowers and how to recognize them. She has friends; she has a job; and she has created a life of imagination for herself. Then she meets Frank Sweeney and they fall in love and marry.
Frank is unemployed, always looking for a new cause or plan. He’s an autodidact and constantly quotes articles he has read in prestigious journals. He tells a story about importing Iranian goats to make a business selling premium goat cheese. The plan failed, he says, because the goats lived in perpetual jet lag and could never adjust to Irish (milking) time. He begins to see Molly’s vision as a cause, studies ophthalmology and decides to request help from Mr. Rice (he doesn’t like being called “doctor.”), a world-renowned eye surgeon. He fled New York for the Irish countryside after his wife deserted him for a colleague. Rice is concerned about the success of the surgery but sees possibilities for reviving his career. Molly isn’t enthusiastic about the surgery since she’s happy with her life as it is, but she agrees to go ahead with it because Frank is so enthusiastic about her “new life” with vision.
Act one ends as the day of surgery arrives. In act two, Molly regains her vision, but the after effects are complicated. Molly’s story is far more stark and disturbing than it would appear on the surface.
The three actors all give superb performances. They appear on screen in three separate places—Frank and Mr. Rice in appropriate home and office settings. The play was recorded remotely and the three actors never saw each other’s performances before last night’s opening.
Playwright Friel says that Molly’s story was inspired in part by Oliver Sacks’ essay “To See and Not See,” published in his book, An Anthropologist on Mars. The essay concerns a man who was blind from early childhood, but was able to recover some of his sight after surgery, with disturbing results.
Molly Sweeney is sometimes compared to Friel’s play, The Faith Healer, in which four characters tell their stories as monologues on a bare stage. The Faith Healer was last staged in Chicago in 2013 by the Den Theatre, and, memorably, at the Irish American Heritage Center in 1999, in a production featuring Brad Armacost and Si Osborne.
Molly Sweeney by Irish Repertory Theatre will be streamed Thursday, May 14, at 7pm (6pmCT) and Friday, May 15, at 8pm (7pmCT). You can reserve a free ticket here but Irish Rep suggests a $25 donation. After reserving your ticket, you’ll receive an email with a viewing link two hours before the stream begins. Note the reservation page and Irish Rep’s emails will give the time in Eastern Time. Running time is two hours plus an intermission.