click to enlarge
Courtesy None Too Fragile
There are many plays that plunge you into the immediate moment, with characters whose passions spill over as they try to negotiate the lives in which they've found themselves.
Then there are plays such as Faith Healer, the magnificent Irish play by Brian Friel now at None Too Fragile theater in Akron, where all the action has happened long before, and the characters are now sifting through the ashes of those old fires, seeking meaning and psychic sustenance.
Directed by Sean Derry, the play consists of four monologues. Two of those , which bookend the evening, feature the itinerant fabulist/con man/faith-healing miracle worker Francis Hardy, played by Derry himself. The other two are delivered by Frank's traveling companions, his wife Grace (Derdriu Ring) and manager Teddy (David Peacock).
Playwright Friel is a seanchai, a master of Irish storytelling whose job it is to bring old stories to life, and he does so by having these three characters—a trio of the most unreliable narrators you'll ever meet—unspool the triumphs and tragedies of their shared lives. And they do it all without ever speaking to or interacting with each other.
This could be a deadly brew for actors not up to the task. Indeed, even with three brilliant and accomplished performers this production falls a bit short and at times feels a bit labored.
As the rumpled banner on stage announces, the "Fantastic Faith Healer" is in town for one night only. As Frank shares his memories, it's clear he's tormented. He is disgusted by the people who pay to attend his healing sessions as they "publicly acknowledge their desperation."
Still, he remembers some nights when everything in his bag of tricks seemed to work, when the lame and halt suddenly became well, and when he was able by some magic or happenstance to straighten a man's bent and gnarled finger. Frank is equally buoyed and tormented by these recollections, lost somewhere in the fog where his con artist schtick meets a possibly God-given (?) ability to heal.
The second and third monologues are presented by Grace and then Teddy, who have their own takes on what has gone before. As Grace, Ring delivers one of the most riveting and shattering performances in recent memory. Grace is desperately in love with Frank, a man who routinely abuses her and who even introduces her to others as his mistress, just to twist the knife. As she says ruefully, "He had such a talent for hurting."
Ring is nothing short of compelling as she deconstructs herself before our eyes, whipsawed between her conflicted feeling until she can barely remain standing. It is a performance that must be seen and treasured.
In the third monologue, the gifted Peacock creates a charming presence as Teddy, the manager who loves both Frank and Grace, but at a distance. He's a professional yarn-spinner, talking about his former pet dog Rob Roy, a talented canine that could play the bagpipes due to a dogged insistence on constant practicing. Teddy's tales also involve whistling dolphins and such, but since he doesn't have as much at stake as the other two, his contributions feel less urgent.
In the final monologue, Frank returns to reflect again on the "ten cures," the ones that seemed to work through some unknown magic. He also ponders one person he couldn't help (among many in that category).
Derry the actor doesn't quite get all that he needs from Derry the director. Over the years, Derry has proven himself to be a master at capturing various characters' angst and intensity, and those are fully present in this performance. But what's missing is the other Frank, the dashing, dangerous bad boy who keeps Grace dangling at the end of her rope, hoping for better treatment.
Another director might have been able to help Derry reveal or at least engage with the rest of Frank Hardy's mysteries. To do that would have required showing us the glint in the eye of this "healer" who entranced his audiences while picking their pockets, making him a cross between Marcus Welby, M.D. and Vince, TV's ShamWow towel huckster.
NTF's take on Faith Healer may not be the definitive evocation of this play. But it is solid overall and features one performance that will be a keepsake for those who love the fragile, evanescent art of live theater.
Through April 22 at None Too Fragile Theatre, 732 W. Exchange St., Akron, nonetoofragile.com, 330-962-5547.