Faith Healer by Brian Friel. Directed by Eric Hill
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...Given them some great content."
Brian Friel’s play about a man born to be a Faith Healer, currently on the Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and that man’s journey toward the understanding of his particular peculiar trade is a very dark work, a deep and sensitive piece in which three different people explore the Faith Healer’s unsure lifelong trek. Frank Hardy’s chosen path is not so much a religious one as it is a show business effort with a single highpoint, the incidental, and accidental, healing of ten people at one performance.
Along with Frank on his adventure are Grace, his wife or his mistress depending on who is telling the story, and Teddy, a Cockney personal manager who has given up on his whippet who plays the bagpipes and a woman who can communicate with 120 pigeons to work day and night with the Faith Healer.
Teddy’s monologue opens the second act and is the longest of the four monologues which comprise the text of the show. This is something you need to know before you go: there are four scenes, each a monologue by one character. There are no scenes, no interactions, but simply the storytelling aspects of solo lives, solo voices. Teddy’s is just under an hour.
Fortunately for Berkshire Theatre Festival audiences Teddy is played by David Adkins who could probably read the Manhattan Telephone Directory to great effect. Adkins transforms himself as only a great actor can do from a handsome and personable fellow into the itchy, aging, male hag that is Teddy. He oozes across the stage, dances, creeps, gesticulates and makes marvelous airs seem like so much rubbish. His Cockney accent never slips away, but occasionally it takes on new colors and nuances that hint at a time when this man may have had pretensions. His version of the story of Frank and Grace to be examined brings to light very credible facts that have escaped both Frank and Grace in their own versions.
Adkins cannot help but be unctuous in this role. It is how Friel wrote the character. What Adkins does, presumably under the guidance of director Eric Hill, is to make Teddy sympathetic rather than pathetic. In spite of ourselves we like this man. He has been accused, before his appearance, of many things and many more have been inferred. When we finally meet him we are not prepared for the multi-faceted man Adkins and Hill bring to life.
Keira Naughton is a wonderful Grace, for the most part. She has no accent that places her in any single part of the British Isles. She is not Scots, nor Irish, not Mayfair, nor East End, nor Welsh. She is a very middle-American woman caught in a British role. In spite of that, and it is quickly forgotten or overlooked, she has gotten through the tough skin of the character into the fatty heart of her.
Where Adkins drinks beer after beer in his scene Naughton, in the forty-five minute monologue that concludes Act One, consumes liquor in a tumbler, one drink after another. These two characters remember all the same things about Frank Hardy but they remember them differently. Where Adkins is overwrought, Naughton is overwhelmed; when he is cute, she is amazing. Her performance builds to small climaxes, then retreats into rancor, anger, bitterness and finally euphoria as she brings her memories again to a highpoint of dramatic ugliness.
Colin Lane is Frank, or Francis, Hardy, the Faith Healer, a man without faith in much of anything including his own unique abilities. He is an angular man, both physically and vocally and his character’s emotional levels require angularity. He ambles as his mind rambles back and forth through his life. He holds center stage even when he leaves it for a time. His voice occasionally leaves the building, which is unfortunate for the audience (particularly sitting house right-director take note). Now and then there is something said that is just not clear. But when he becomes engrossed in his story, Frank Hardy is alive and definitely kicking.
How wonderful it would be to have these three characters in a scene together, especially with three such dynamic actors in these roles. Friel has not given them the chance to show, rather than tell, the story of their complicated relationship and a particular moment in time when confrontations were all these three can commit to is told and retold and to have seen it would have been just the thing the play needs to be a play.
Here is the difficulty. No amount of talent, and I include all three actors, the director and the excellent design team for the play (Chesapeake Westveer, sets; Charles Schoonmaker, costumes; Dan Kotlowitz, lights), can give us what we want when the playwright has chosen to refuse us the opportunity to see how his characters really behaved with one another.
Each character has a perspective on the incidents and the fact. No two agree. This Irish Rashomon technique is key to this work, as it was with other Friel pieces like "Molly Sweeney."
Here, however, the emotions are at such a high point in the story being told that to never experience it with the participants only weakens the effect.
What is left is fascinating, a bit frightening at times, and certainly worth knowing. For Frank his work is "a craft without an apprenticeship," and what we hear about his work would certainly prove the point that learning your trade under the guidance of a master makes a world of difference in a career. This play which opens the Berkshire Theatre Festival season - and plays through July 4 - is a hard play to take, but an undertaking worthwhile.
David Adkins as Teddy; photo: Kevin Sprague
Keira Naughton as Grace; photo: Kevin Sprague
Colin Lane as Frank; photo: Kevin Sprague
Faith Healer plays at the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge through July 4. Ticket prices range from $19.50 to $44. For schedule and ticket availability call 413-298-5576 or go on line to www.berkshiretheatre.org.