Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney, revived by The Irish Repertory Company, is a terrifyingly beautiful play. What Yeats wrote, in the very different context of the Easter Rebellion, “a terrible beauty is born,” nevertheless applies here too. Friel is one of Ireland’s—indeed the world’s—great dramatists, and this is one of his best plays.
It is the story of Molly Sweeney, a 41-year-old middle-class wife in Ballybeg, County Donegal (a small town Friel invented), who became blind in her tenth month. But her quixotic husband, Frank, insists that she would recover, although there have been only twenty such cures recorded in history.
When Mr. Rice, an internationally celebrated ophthalmologist originally from County Limerick, after his wife shockingly left him for a trusted colleague, lands Ballybeg as a sort of self-imposed exile, Frank, with extraordinary bravado and persistence, gets him to operate on Molly, who was perfectly happy when blind and did not want to change.
Partial, but not inconsiderable, sight is restored her, yet the consequences, for everyone concerned, are not what was expected. More I cannot tell you, but already up to this point the play is full of arresting things, including the account of Frank’s bizarre career, which includes importing Iranian goats for cheese making to beekeeping, a stint in Africa and much more, everything always a hilarious fiasco.
The play’s structure is unusual. Friel invented it earlier for another splendid play, The Faith Healer. There as here, we get alternating monologues from two men and a woman—in this case, Rice, Molly and Frank—very different in character. Rice speaks in posh tone and verbiage about his work, marriage, wife loss and Molly’s case. Molly reminisces charmingly about her peculiar, warring parents and nevertheless happy childhood, Frank’s unusual wooing, her blindness, friendships, and operations, one for each eye.
Let me quote only a part of a longer passage in which Molly exults in her pleasure in swimming. “I used to think—and I know this sounds silly—but I really did believe I got more pleasure , more delight, from swimming than sighted people can ever get. Just offering yourself to the experience—every pore open and eager for that world of pure sensation, of sensation alone—sensation that could not be enhanced by sight—experience that existed only by touch and feel; and moving swiftly and rhythmically through that enfolding world; and the sense of such assurance, such concordance with it.” Note how the repetition of the words “sensation,”
“experience” and “world” contributes to the sense of excitement, to an exhilaration that the rest of this speech elaborates and makes even more memorable.
Frank’s monologue is riotously funny: confessional, self-mocking,, boisterous and blusterous, and ever so Irish. The three monologues—the characters never address one another in dialogue except in quotations—achieves a robust three-dimensionality, like viewing a statue from three different angles. What it all ultimately adds up to is an analysis of seeing and understanding, two very different things, and what, separately or in combination, they mean psychologically, philosophically, humanly.
When the play was premiered at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1994, and in its New York mounting in 1996, Molly was played by Catherine Byrne, an extraordinary actress and beautiful woman, in a shattering, unforgettable performance. In New York, Rice was played by Jason Robards, Frank by Alfred Molina, two world-class actors, both times under the author’s direction. In the present revival, things are less rosy.
Molly is played by Geraldine Hughes, a Belfast-born but mostly American actress. She does a respectable job, but not an exciting one and looks like a frowsy, average middle-class woman. As Rice, we get Jonathan Hogan, scarcely posh of speech, and a rather mannered, in my view unsympathetic actor. Frank is portrayed by Ciaran O’Reilly, co-founder of the IRT, with rollicking good humor, but just a shade hammily. The other co-founder, Charlotte Moore, directed, efficiently but—perhaps because of scenery, lighting and acting—a trifle less memorably than Friel himself.
Still, you may well want to catch the play even in its somewhat reduced means. It retains its superb language and strong emotional and intellectual appeal. It registers on the viewer as what, quoting a scientific term, it calls an engram: an imprint that remains indelible and immutable.
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com Bloomberg Newsand. He reviews books for the New York Times Book ReviewWashington Postand. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures Connoisseurand and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.comwebsite.