THEATER REVIEW: Sight and Insight in Molly Sweeney

Irish Heritage Theatre does honor to Brian Friel's lyrical play.
Ethan Lipkin, Kirsten Quinn, and Michael Toner in Molly Sweeney at Irish Heritage Theatre. (Photo by Carlos Forbes)

Ethan Lipkin, Kirsten Quinn, and Michael Toner in Molly Sweeney at Irish Heritage Theatre. (Photo by Carlos Forbes)

Though Brian Friel’s lyrical play Molly Sweeney might be categorized as a medical case study, it begins in a garden.  Molly, a lovely woman around 40, is reminiscing about her childhood.  She remembers being with her father, who asks her to name the flowers, and identify precisely where they are.  Soon it’s clear that this is bittersweet — Molly is blind, and her father is making sure she’s self-sufficient.

As portrayed by the luminous, charismatic Kirsten Quinn, we are on Molly’s side from the get-go.  She’s forthright, good humored, never self-pitying.  So we feel invested when we learn there’s a surgical procedure that might at least partially restore her sight.

That story is the arc line of Molly Sweeney, a tale both intimate and vast — because restoring Molly’s sight won’t necessarily help her understand the world; in fact, it could be destabilizing.

Friel’s narrative takes the form of individual monologues.  In addition to Molly, we also hear from her husband, Frank, a hearty fellow with big, unrealistic dreams, but whose heart is in the right place (actor Ethan Lipkin, expansive and likeable).  Rounding out the group is Mr. Rice, Molly’s surgeon – also good-hearted, but pompous and punctilious. (Michael Toner deftly navigates this difficult role – we need to find Rice both admirable and annoying.)

Monologue plays are generally an unfavorite form of mine, often a shortcut for lesser writers to avoid the complexities of multi-voiced conversation.  In the process, we can lose much of what makes theater… well, theatrical.

But Friel is a master craftsman, and the Molly Sweeney monologues are here to make a point.  Molly, gregarious as she is, is also isolated.  Even more, because the narrative unfolds through separate recollections of past events, the audience in a sense is also not “seeing” what happens — we’re left instead to reconstruct it in our minds, using the sight provided by imagination — and in so doing, we come to understand her blindness more completely.

I found the whole of the first act remarkable and gripping; the second act less so.  As the play moves on, the monologues are shorter, and (though no two characters ever actually converse) closer to dialogue.  Director Peggy Meacham’s staging also moves the actors together in more naturalistic groups.  All of this adds variety, but also makes Molly Sweeney more ordinary.  By the end, it’s also too talky and circuitous – fewer reminiscences from Mr. Rice, and ten minutes off the running time would be welcome.

Still, this is thoughtful, often beautiful work.  Molly Sweeney is one of Friel’s lesser-known plays, but it shares with his more famous work a seriousness and density that smart audiences welcome.  Meacham’s finely acted version honors that seriousness.  This is Irish Heritage Theatre’s first production that’s Barrymore Award-eligible; more than that, it’s Barrymore worthy.

Molly Sweeney plays through October 15.  For more information, visit the Irish Heritage Theatre website.