Review: Molly Sweeney at Irish Theatre Examines the Difference Between Seeing and Understanding  

Molly Sweeney is an independent middle-aged woman who lives in Donegal. She has a job, a husband, friends, social activities, and she loves to swim in the sea. She has been completely blind since she was an infant. She’s content with her life, however, until two men—each with his own self-interest—intrude and persuade her to undergo surgery to gain her vision.

Molly Sweeney, the cleverly written play by Brian Friel, tells Molly’s story in a moving series of interwoven monologs by three people. Irish Theatre of Chicago is staging the play now in the manner suggested by the playwright: Each character inhabits their own space on stage and remains there throughout the performance; they don’t interact, even though they may seem to be carrying on a conversation. Siiri Scott’s sure direction keeps the static setting dynamic and her cast of three fine actors works within it to tell this melancholy story.

Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Molly (Carolyn Kruse) begins with a charming monologue about learning about flowers, their textures and scents, from her father. He was teaching her to learn about the world through tactile experience. Molly is enthusiastic and vivacious in telling her story. Her husband Frank (Matthew Isler) is unemployed, and always looking for a new cause or a profitable gig. An auto-didact, he discovers new topics to read up on and quote at length to anyone who will listen.

Molly and Frank have only been married a few years. Frank decides that Molly’s life will finally be complete if she gains her sight; he reads about all aspects of vision to find a way to help her.

Frank learns that a certain Mr. Rice (Robert Kauzlaric) who lives in nearby Ballybeg was at one time a world-renowned eye surgeon and now practices at a small hospital. He visits Rice, bringing along his huge file of information about blindness, which he believes that Mr. Rice could benefit from reviewing. He prevails upon him to see Molly. When Rice examines Molly, he finds she has cataracts on both eyes plus other vision conditions.

Rice is at first reluctant to take Molly’s case because few such surgeries are ever successful. However, he begins to see that this unusual cataract surgery, if successful, could be a way to resuscitate his practice and his career. Despite Molly’s uncertainty, she goes along with the plans of the two men.

Matthew Isler as Frank. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Act one leads up to the first surgery. As act two begins, her bandages are removed. Is it a medical miracle or will the patient find her new life more disturbing? The play is a thoughtful consideration of the difference between seeing and understanding. The newly sighted person must comprehend the world in a new way.

Jessica Baldinger’s rustic scenic design suggests the seaside location and Smooch Medina’s sensitive lighting design is a dramatic enhancement for the setting.

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 monologs 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.

Irish Repertory Theatre produced an outstanding virtual version of Molly Sweeney two years ago in May 2020. The monolog structure makes it especially viable for virtual theater. See our review here.

Molly Sweeney by Irish Theatre of Chicago continues through May 8 at the Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets are $40 with $5 discounts for students and seniors. For more information on this and other productions, see https://www.theatreinchicago.com/.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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