Powerful Irish Play Is Convoluted Puzzle

FAITH HEALER. Play by Brian Friel. At Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, Conn., through May 8.

EVER since ``Philadelphia, Here I Come!'' in l964, (which New York's Roundabout Theatre revives in August), Brian Friel has been recognized in Dublin, London, and New York as one of the theater's most gifted playwrights.

If the plays that he wrote next received greater visibility abroad than here, the l990 success of ``Dancing at Lughnasa'' solidified his reputation and increased curiosity about his unseen or forgotten work.

A swift demise greeted the initial Broadway production of ``Faith Healer'' in l979, in spite of the fact that James Mason and his wife, Clarissa Kaye, played the leads.

But the play, about a sideshow healer and his wife, has its share of passionate admirers. Through May 8, the Long Wharf Theatre, in New Haven, Conn., is rewarding them by importing a production originally re-created for Dublin's Abbey Theatre two years ago.

The reasons for both its reputation and its failure are understandable. In its two compelling protagonists, Francis (Frank) Hardy and his wife, Grace, Friel has created a self-doubting and self-destructive couple who are enormously sympathetic and helpful to others but are not able to help themselves.

Frank has a talent for healing, which is recognized early on by their Cockney manager, Teddy, who stays with them as they barely eke out a living, traveling through Scotland, Wales, and eventually Ireland. During this time, they put on their ``performance'' (as Frank calls it) and survive the death of a stillborn child.

Friel being Friel, there are passages of gorgeous writing, some of them needlessly dense. (For example, we learn far more than we need to about Frank's parents, Grace's family, and Teddy's other show-business clients.)

But the playwright has refused to write ``scenes,'' or even any dialogue, between any two (let alone three) characters. Instead, the trio of participants become stand-up storytellers, providing variations of mostly the same events, from three points of view.

They are also witnesses to the extraordinary tale of Frank's last night on earth, which is spellbinding. (Friel teasingly drops bits and pieces of it for over two hours.) But by the time you grasp it all, you may be bewitched - that is, if you're not bored, bothered, or bewildered by then. Frank came to heal 10 citizens in a small Irish village of such serious ills as blindness and polio, which in turn made them urge him to try and cure a crippled child. Frank didn't think he could help the boy, but tried anyway; when he failed, four angry men murdered him.

With nothing re-told in the same time sequence, it's easy to see how many in the audience become confused, especially when both Frank and Grace die in the narrative, only to have them still standing before us in the present.

Certainly, all three roles represent exceptional opportunities for actors. Donal McCann is experienced at playing Friel, and he manages to convey both sides of Frank's psyche, the cruel and negligent alcoholic and the man who doesn't understand his own apparent power to heal. It's not a showy performance, but a deeply honest one.

The actress undertaking the role of Grace must be able to suggest the cunning of a former solicitor, the frailty of one diagnosed with a blood disease, and the strength to engage in verbal combat with her alcoholic husband.

Judy Geeson, unfortunately, doesn't suggest this sort of woman at all. But she is vulnerable, appealing, and sympathetic; for some theatergoers this will be enough.

Others may wish they'd seen Sinead Cusack, who played the role in London's West End (though Geeson originated the part when this production opened in Dublin).

In the less showy role of the manager, British character actor Ron Cook is amazing. This compact and dynamic talent commands the stage with humor, energy, and irony, giving the play a shape where it's least expected.

Joe Dowling's work as director cannot be faulted; he gives each speaker a valuable ambience and keeps the production deliberately understated, so the imagination can work overtime.

Frank Hallinan Flood's set is nevertheless evocative and helped greatly by Christopher Akerland's lighting.

``Faith Healer'' can be hesitantly recommended to serious theater lovers and devotees of really demanding jigsaw puzzles. As an experiment in dramatic form, it anticipates Jon Robin Baitz's ``Three Hotels'' by years, and surpasses it in intensity.

Others should stay away, or wait for the inevitable film version, when characters will be allowed to engage in dialogue with each other. It's no insult to say the material would make a stunning motion picture.

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