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‘Faith Healer’ at The Den: Probing the crannies of a shared past, recounted and embroidered

Submitted by on Jan 13, 2013 – 6:21 pm

“Faith Healer” by Brian Friel, a remount of TurnAround Theatre’s original 1995 production, at The Den Theatre, extended through Feb. 3. ★★★★

By Nancy Malitz

Brad Armacost, Lia D. Mortensen and Si Osborne seem perfectly cast in the story of a shabby trio who recall their traveling years to remote hamlets of Scotland and Wales peddling miracle cures to enfeebled denizens.

It confounds the imagination, then, to learn these Chicago-based actors first performed Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer” together 17 years ago, in an award-winning production that surely had them playing characters far beyond their actual years.

I wasn’t there then, but I’m glad to be seeing them now, when they’re of the proper age and when, as it turns out, their bonds to each other have undergone transformations that resonate with some of the themes of the play. They now inhabit the characters of Teddy the Cockney promoter (Armacost), Grace the long-suffering wife (Mortensen) and Frank Hardy the “talent” (Osborne) with rich quirks and touching crannies thoroughly explored.

What a piece of work this is for actors — a kind of Irish “Rashōmon” in which each singly commands an entire solo scene, delivering a lengthy monologue on the sparest of sets, telling his or her own version of their considerable shared adventures and the calamitous consequences of which they can hardly speak.

The adventures come first — irresistible marvels of story-telling. As these mini sagas unfold, the narrators’ visages come unpinched, their addictions and regrets temporarily forgot. We learn, for example, about other “maaeggg-nificent” talents that Teddy once handled, such as his bagpipe-squeezing whippet, called Rob Roy, to whose “genius” Teddy habitually and hilariously refers.

But you can feel the tension tighten in the theater as the hypnotic lilt of each rambunctious account begins to dart and flutter around the doom. And when the faith healer takes the stage once more, to fill in bizarre details that bring their triple tale into focus, the effect is shattering and cathartic.

Friel himself is now 84, with dozens of plays that are miracles of language, and no month goes by without one of them being performed somewhere in the U.S. “Translations” was back on Broadway in 2007; “Dancing at Lughnasa” enjoyed a splendid off-Broadway revival in 2011, and “The Freedom of the City” is currently pulsing with knock-out power at New York City’s Irish Rep.

This production at The Den Theatre, directed by J.R. Sullivan, can stand up to any of them. So much the better that it’s being presented in the Den’s intimate space, where the story-tellers seem to converse with you alone, enhanced by Sullivan’s subtle directorial underscoring and Cat Wilson’s lighting, both of which can go from dream to nightmare in a flash.

Mortensen’s compelling account of Grace’s life as the wife of Frank (or so she says) pours out in waves of pure emotion that are by turns ripe, sarcastic, bewildered and helplessly loving. We sense that Grace is kept just this side of hysteria by medication.

Osborne, as Frank, has had the first chance to charm us, to set the scene in his favor in an opening monologue that befits an artist (or con man) perplexed by his own gift. It’s a continued strength of Osborne’s performance that we never really know whether Frank’s version of his end on this earth is the truth or something better.

Endearing touches of Henry Behel’s well-worn scenic design include a charming whippet bed which is practically a character in its own right, and Rachel S. Parent’s careful costume distinctions. That threadbare but once flamboyant smoking jacket suits the trio’s impresario to a T.

As for Armacost, “maaeggg-nificent” as said impresario, is it impossible not to wonder how he manages to consume as many bottles of frothy brew as he does in his monologue every night and still make it to the end of his scene. Among his talents, surely, is the constitution of a camel.

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Photo captions and credits: Homepage and top: The actors in “Faith Healer,” who never actually appear together onstage, are Si Osborne as Frank Hardy, Lia D. Mortensen as Grace and Brad Armacost as Teddy. Descending: Brad Armacost as the act’s Cockney promoter, Teddy, almost never stops enthusing over the “talents” he has managed. Si Osborne plays Frank Hardy, a character who keeps you guessing about where the line between truth and his art is drawn. Lia D. Mortensen plays Grace, patient, loyal and long-suffering. (Production photos by Joe Mazza)

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