The blind inhabit a different world from the one we, the sighted, inhabit. But that world of the blind is in no way a lesser or diminished realm. In fact, in some ways the world of the blind can be a richer sphere, one that is packed with experiences and sensations the sighted never reach. That is the core insight behind Brian Friel’s play Molly Sweeney, now being streamed by Lantern Theater.
Brian Friel ranks as one of the most accomplished Irish playwrights of the second half of the 20th century. He had a special connection to our town, as his breakthrough play was Philadelphia, Here I Come!, which focused on a young Irishman about to depart Eire for his version of the promised land – the City of Brotherly Love.
Friel often wrote about his countrymen and countrywomen making the best of stunted lives. In Molly Sweeney, Friel set out to explore new psychological territory and the results are brilliant. This is a play that touches some be very deep regions of the human soul.
It’s also a play that was perfect for this pandemic-battered season, as it lends itself so readily to a socially distanced performance, streamed online, being a string of monologues delivered by three characters. The trio is intimately connected, though the script never has them appear together in any scene.
The character at the center of the drama is the eponymous Molly Sweeney, a woman in her early 40s who has been blind since she was ten months old. In other words, she has no usable memories of being sighted.
The other two characters are Frank, Molly’s husband, and Dr. Paddy Rice, who has been demoted to the appellation Mr. Rice. Frank is a loving husband in his own, bumbling way. He and Molly met late in their lives, and their marriage seems to be characterized more by caring and shared need than passion. Still, that’s a big improvement over the marriage of Molly’s parents, as she herself remembers it: they would fight “a weary war at night”. The key turn in the play comes when Frank, an obsessive autodidact, emerges from a squall of research and decides that Molly’s sight could possibly be restored via surgery.
Paddy Rice is the man Frank approaches to effect this radical change. Rice is an ophthalmologist whose career has charted a steady downward arc for some time. (During his first monologue, Rice sips from what seems to be a glass of whiskey, and it’s later reported that he had whiskey on his breath at 10:00 a.m.) But then Molly and Frank enter his bleak world. In one of his early turns, Rice notes that there had only been 20 cases of restored vision in the last 1,000 years. Quickly, he’s seized by the hope that he can be the doctor who performs the twenty-first “miracle”. He sees Molly’s case as the “chance of a lifetime” to “transform his reputation”. Spurred by memories of much better days in his career, he can’t resist the opportunity.
However, the surgery is fraught with risks, and each of the characters has his or her own way of defining what the success of the surgery would actually entail. In the early scenes, Frank and Rice echo each other by asking “What did she have to lose?” Soon, Molly addresses the issue in one of her monologues and asks if there is “ … anything she has to gain?”. Her retort to the benign impudence of the two men carries a certain sting that even hits us streaming observers.
As the play glides along, Molly provides an answer to the men’s question. In describing her range of experiences while swimming, she attests that her sightless world gives her pleasure – perhaps even more pleasure from swimming than the sighted ever get.
Friel later yokes this testament to the timeless Irish theme of exile. Molly admits that she’s gripped by “the dread of exile”. Following the quasi-successful surgery, her brief excursion into the land of sight leaves her feeling like an alien, an intruder. The new world where she can see is a foreign country to her, and she comes to feel that she was “exiled from her old blind world.”
Friel deftly arranges the string of monologues in a way that only enhances the dynamics between the three characters. Each twist of one results in a turn of one of the others, at times both of the others. More compelling is the fact that all three characters prove to be immensely interesting, flawed characters whose flaws infuse the dynamic. (Molly herself bears the fewest flaws, Paddy Rice the most.) Friel thus lets us know that each of his three characters is blind in his or her own way, and Molly’s blindness is the least damaging.
You can’t write a successful play consisting entirely of monologues without paying special to the language, and Friel’s use of language here is marvelous – pinpoint, lyrical and moving. Each character is given his or her own tone and command of the sharp details that define their lives. The skillful way Friel wields the tool of language lets us eventually realize that it’s not only Molly who inhabits a unique world that she can never fully share with another; Frank and Rice also inhabit their own worlds.
As wonderful as Friel’s text may be, you need extremely talented players to realize the power and beauty of the script. The three who delivered the Lantern Theater production were quite up to the challenge. Under the sensitive direction of Peter DeLaurier, Geneviéve Perrier (Molly), Ian Merrill Peakes (Frank) and Anthony Lawton (Mr. Rice) form a trio that makes this production an absolute triumph.
Perrier’s handling of Molly is exemplary. For a long stretch, Perrier’s Molly confirms Mr. Rice’s first assessment of her: “calm and independent” with “no sense of self-pity or resignation”. The spin her life takes after surgery becomes all the more poignant because of how beautifully Perrier plays the character in the pre-surgery scenes.
Anthony Lawton is also excellent as Dr. Paddy Rice. The character Lawton presents us with is a man cautiously trying to find his grounding again after a series of personal and professional setbacks. His surface confidence has a hundred cracks in it, mementos of those setbacks, and Lawton makes us fully aware of how broken Rice is under the surface. With his command of nuance and suggestion, Lawton becomes a sturdy third corner of this sad triangle.
Ian Merrill Peakes’ performance is arguably the strongest of the production, which is saying quite a bit considering the strength of the other two performances. This could be attributed to the fact that Frank is the character with the most quirks and crannies to explore. Peakes’s Frank is a man who is all too obviously uncomfortable in his own skin, and his twists and squirms as he delivers his accounts tell us so much about how a series of failed projects and good intentions turned sour have formed the man we see. Peakes also has the most secure Irish accent of the three. (He delivers some single-syllable words such as ‘yes’ in three syllables.) While Perrier and Lawton occasionally let their accents slip, the emotional authenticity of their performances made such slips negligible.
Nick Embree’s set for this show is spare to the max: all three characters deliver their monologues sitting on a backless bench, with what seems to be a corrugated wall behind them. Janet Embree’s lighting gives the backdrop wall a different hue for each character, emphasizing the different sphere each dwells in. The austerity of the set is quite fitting for the story being told here in a meticulous production that’s guaranteed to satisfy all theatre-lovers keen to again see first-rate theatre that’s been rationed for almost a year due to the pandemic.
Molly Sweeney is available for viewing from now until February 14. Log into the Lantern Theater website (www.lanterntheater.org) to get your streaming on demand tickets at any time.
Molly Sweeney: None So Blind As Those That See