From time to time, you encounter a play that is generally regarded as a masterpiece – and, try as you might, you just can’t bring yourself to believe in its greatness.
Maybe that’s happened to you with Love Labour’s Lost ? Or Waiting for Godot? Or The Book of Mormon?
Well, colour me skeptical when it comes to Faith Healer.
Irish playwright Brian Friel’s 1979 play is a subtle and textured piece of writing, no doubt. This series of monologues has a lot to say about the illusions and delusions about ourselves and others we amass over a lifetime – and the unsettling experience of losing faith in our personal narratives.
But on the stage, I’ve found it to be soporific rather than hypnotic – and the Shaw Festival’s new production hasn’t converted me.
Frank Hardy, played by the usually mesmeric mound of meat that is Jim Mezon, opens and closes the play. He’s an itinerant Irishman who travels through small-town Scotland and Wales curing the incurable – or conning them, depending on your point of view.
Most everything in Friel’s play could be followed by that phrase – “depending on your point of view.” After Frank, comes Corrine Koslo’s Grace, who is either his long-suffering wife or his long-suffering mistress, having given up a career as a solicitor to follow him around in perpetual disappointment in a dilapidated van.
Then, there’s Teddy, Frank’s manager and the liveliest of the bunch, especially in Peter Krantz’s hammy, yet somehow heartbreaking performance; before he managed “Fantastic Francis Hardy,” his acts included Miss Mulatto and Her Three Pigeons and a bagpipe-playing whippet named Rob Roy.
Listening closely to Frank, Grace and Teddy, you’ll discover many discrepancies in their stories, some slight, others significant – from the weather on a particular day, to the circumstances of the birth of Grace’s child. Then, there’s the dispute over who exactly thought Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight was appropriate to play during Frank’s church-hall entrances. (“Lovely… Never, never change,” is certainly a strange message to play to a room full of people desperately wanting to be transformed.)
Faith Healer ‘s structure has elicited comparisons to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but, in Friel’s work, the climactic event – the attempted healing of a paraplegic named McGarvey that goes awry in Ireland – is the only thing that the three narrators agree upon.
And Friel’s concerns go beyond simply saying that there are three sides to every story – to exploring what critic Claire Gleitman calls “the fundamentally private nature of human consciousness and the vexing fluidity of personal identity.” McGarvey turns out to be a MacGuffin and, after over 2 1/2 hours, what there is of a plot simply dissolves – or peters out, depending on your point of view.
It’s hard to imagine better casting for Faith Healer than the three actors here. The Mezon magic is strangely missing, however, while Koslo gives a performance that is intense and intimate and nevertheless oddly unaffecting. Only Krantz really wakes the audience up, putting his vocal and physical bag of tricks to appropriate use as a showbiz eccentric.
It would be easy to blame director Craig Hall’s production for the ultimately tedious results. With the exception of James Smith’s entrancing musical compositions, it fails to conjure the required sense of the numinous. Christina Poddubiuk’s design eschews the otherworldly for a rather realistic church hall full of chairs. Mezon then spends much of his opening monologue shuffling them about without purpose, which makes the proceedings seem particularly aimless.
Or perhaps the problem is that Ireland has, since 1979 and especially since the 1990s, sent us many more immediately engaging and stylistically sensational monologues from the likes of Conor McPherson (This Lime Tree Bower, Port Authority) and Mark O’Rowe (Terminus).
Faith Healer is a philosophically fascinating text, but it is frustrating as theatre in the way it constantly subverts the (Irish?) storytelling impulse without offering anything beyond rhythmical language in return. Frank, Grace and Teddy crave certainty and form, but what they get are uncertain, curtailed narratives that erode rather than end. So do we – and that will lead you to feel either enlightened or frustrated, depending on your point of view.