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Molly Sweeney, Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Blind Ambition

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Molly Sweeney

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Albert Williams

Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.--Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects

Brian Friel's 1979 Faith Healer, seen last year in a splendid TurnAround Theatre production that relocated to Steppenwolf's studio, concerns an itinerant miracle worker whose mysterious gift for curing the blind leads to his destruction; structured as a series of long monologues by the healer, his wife, and his assistant, the play turns a strange scandal into a cross between Irish folk drama and Greek tragedy. In his haunting 1994 drama Molly Sweeney--beautifully directed on Steppenwolf's main stage by Kyle Donnelly, who's making a most welcome return to Chicago theater--Friel again probes a curious little episode for depths of meaning few other writers today could approach. His story of a blind woman who undergoes surgery to restore her sight--inspired by the medical case study "To See and Not See" by neurologist Oliver Sacks--takes on mythic resonance as Friel weighs themes of vision and understanding in human beings' misguided interaction with their inner and outer worlds.

Blind since the age of ten months, Molly Sweeney is a massage therapist who undergoes surgery at the urging of her husband Frank, a do-gooder easily obsessed by causes he knows little about. Having failed as a cheese farmer--the Iranian goats he imported to Ireland couldn't function effectively in their new environment--Frank undertakes curing Molly's disability. Armed with a file of factoids gleaned from research at the local library, he brings his wife to Paddy Rice, a once-famous surgeon who's retreated from the international spotlight to a low-profile position at a rural Irish hospital. Just as Frank dreams of a "miracle cure" for his wife, Rice indulges in the "opulent fantasy" of a reputation restored by his surgical skill. But neither of them ever gets around to asking Molly how she feels. After all, as Rice asks himself, what has she got to lose?

Everything, it turns out. Having grown into a life she loves and understands--filled with wondrous experiences of touch, smell, and sound, such as the "pure sensation" of swimming she describes in one especially lyrical speech--Molly is overwhelmed by the new dimension her restored, limited vision brings; Rice alleviates a disorder of the body but leaves her vulnerable to an illness of the mind and the soul. Frank is no help. Though he sees in her increasingly erratic behavior signals of her escalating dis-ease, he can't cope with it--because he has no words for it other than the dispassionate, clinical gobbledygook he picks up from the experts. He can't see things invisible, in Swift's phrase, and lacks the courage to try.

The only real expert on the case, of course, is Molly herself; but Frank never actually asks her what's wrong. Instead he pulls away, finding new causes: flooding a local lake (and destroying the nests of the local badger population) and helping relieve hunger in Africa, where he discovers an aggressive strain of bee he intends to import to Europe. Molly, meanwhile, is committed to a local hospital, where she comes to inhabit a "borderline country" between sight and blindness--and between sanity and madness.

Friel finds in Molly's fate a mythic representation of man's penchant for destroying his environment in the name of saving it. Molly is nature incarnate--intuitive, sensual, in balance with herself until she's "improved" by science--and Frank is mankind, acting on his world rather than in partnership with it, flummoxed when things don't turn out the way logic dictates they should. Molly's tragedy is that she never resists Frank's foolhardy energy: trained by her father at home rather than at a school for the blind, Molly is passively--and disastrously--trusting in her husband and Rice, the seedy alcoholic father figure whose self-aggrandizing quotation from the Bible--"I see men as trees, walking"--underscores the script's environmental and feminist content.

Though these elements provide the play with a rich subtext, the story is fascinating on its own terms--in part because it's based on documented cases of failed efforts to restore a blind person's sight and then teach her or him "how to see." Friel's dense script skillfully interweaves informative clinical terminology and statistics (even as it criticizes men's reliance on such data) with subtle puns, offbeat allusions, and gorgeously phrased prose poetry. But most important, the story functions as compelling drama, because the words always reflect the imperfect perspectives of the three characters. As in Faith Healer, the play is a procession of monologues--though where Faith Healer consists of four very long speeches that can tax an audience's attention, here the monologues alternate fairly frequently. This script not only has a more fluid pace but a naturally building suspense, as flashbacks allow the audience to piece together the story through the way Molly, Frank, and Rice confirm and contradict one another.

This narrative approach is singularly well suited to a tale of how reality is shaped by the way it's perceived. Appropriately, Donnelly (who assisted Friel when he directed the play in New York last year) has envisioned the production as an evening of storytelling, with each of the actors taking focus in turn while the others listen. Though occasionally the performers enter each other's playing area, for the most part they stay in separate, isolated parts of the stage. In front of the actors rises a frightening cluster of jagged rocks, suggesting both the Irish coast and the dangerous situation. Behind them, terrifyingly, looms an ominous void, as Donnelly and her gifted designers Linda Buchanan (set) and James F. Ingalls (lights) make brilliant use of the higher-than-high ceiling, which too often turns Steppenwolf actors into props in a visual scheme. Reinforcing the actors' separateness are three doorways--doors of perception indeed--that seem to hang surrealistically in the dark, empty space.

Against this darkness the understated, sensitively phrased performances Donnelly has evoked rivet our attention: Jenny Bacon, enigmatic and haunting as Molly; Rick Snyder, all cluttered, nervous energy as Frank; and Robert Breuler as Rice, hiding his emotional dissipation behind an attitude of thoughtful objectivity. The actors' clarity and deep-centered focus as they sort through old memories is crucial to a storytelling play like this--for the drama resides both in past events and in the characters' halting progress toward self-understanding as they recall them. While Frank's and Rice's epiphanies carry the most immediate force as they come to realize the tragedy they've caused, Molly's final scene lingers most in memory: like a landscape that can thrive as lush forest or survive as barren desert once man has plundered it, she's endlessly enduring as she settles into her "borderline country." Exquisitely written and exquisitely presented, Molly Sweeney is visionary theater in every sense.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photograph of "Molly Sweeney" cast members (Jenny Bacon, Rick Snyder, Robert Breuler) by Michael Brosilow.

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