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‘Molly Sweeney’ at American Players Theatre: From gentle darkness, a voyage to rough light

Submitted by on Aug 6, 2013 – 5:07 pm

“Molly Sweeney” by Brian Friel, at American Players Theatre through Sept. 21 ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

SPRING GREEN, WI — She is a perfectly happy lady, Molly Sweeney. Though blind since early childhood, she’s content in her soul, and wondrously in touch with the world, which she views – through the tactile, auditory and aromatic senses – as very much hers.

Then her husband and a once-celebrated eye surgeon convince her that an operation could open up unimagined vistas of bliss. That’s the harrowing thrust of Brian Friel’s intimate tragedy “Molly Sweeney,” delivered with equal parts of sensitivity and irony and shattering impact at American Players Theatre.

Like Friel’s “Faith Healer,” presented earlier this year at The Den Theatre in Chicago, “Molly Sweeney” unfolds through sequential monologues. The characters – Molly, her husband Frank and the surgeon Mr. Rice – speak to the audience, not to each other, in recalling how events spun out in this memory play times three. In the process, we also get multiple perspectives on the characters themselves.

“Molly Sweeney” is rooted in the Irish tradition of story-telling, and like playwright Brian Friel, director Kenneth Albers and these actors – Colleen Madden as Molly, David Daniel as Frank and Jonathan Smoots as Mr. Rice – are masters of the craft. From the moment each steps into the spotlight, our ears are perked and our gaze fixed. Each has a fascinating take on the story, which they recount in round-robin fashion, as if in chapters.

Colleen Madden’s Molly is an endearing soul, no longer young but not yet old, who savors her connections with the good earth. She knows herself, and there’s no place in that knowledge for self-pity. The world, its flowers and trees and people, is a thing of sensate beauty and she relishes every petal and leaf of it. But her husband insists that there’s more to life in its visible aspect. Half in resignation, half in curious cooperation, Molly’s agrees to have surgery on her eyes.

Husband Frank is a man who likes a good project, and who’s always looking for the next adventure. He’s maybe one step removed from a drifter. He once had a sort of business opportunity that would have taken him to Ethiopia, but he let it go. He still thinks about that. In David Daniel’s dreamy, impassioned, but under it all self-absorbed Frank, we observe an unmoored soul. Yet he seems to love Molly; he’s certainly caught up in the idea of her regaining the sight she lost in infancy.

It’s Frank’s fascination with that idea that troubles Mr. Rice, who wonders aloud whether this, like Frank’s other transient enthusiasms, will pass in time – indeed, whether the man’s interest in Molly might wane once this matter with her sight is concluded.

Jonathan Smoots’ portrayal of the doctor, the one really tormented soul in this threesome, serves as both the production’s binding element and driving force. Once a world-renowned eye surgeon, Rice threw it all away the day his wife left him for a colleague. Now he lives in obscurity, drinking heavily, his life stalled by anger, loss, grief, self-loathing.

But what if he were to restore this woman’s sight? Then how would his high-and-mighty colleagues see him? This chance could be a gift from heaven, a last shot at redemption. Smoots’ ruminative performance is magnetic, as searching and disquieted as it is measured and eloquent.

American Players Theatre, about 35 miles west of Madison and four hours from Chicago by car, offers its productions in two venues — the spacious outdoor Up the Hill Theatre and the small, indoor Touchstone Theatre, which proves to be an ideal setting for such inherently close-up drama as “Molly Sweeney.”  Director Kenneth Albers manages to infuse great energy into story-telling that begins on a nearly bare stage with three actors passively seated in chairs spaced well apart – a plausible metaphor for the spiritual distances that separate each character from the others. It is, like “Faith Healer,” a tale of human foible glimpsed from diverse angles, the principals rather ordinary folk, the consummation a testament of sorrow.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Colleen Madden as Molly Sweeney. Descending: Molly (Colleen Madden) is full of life and in love with the world. Molly’s husband Frank (David Daniel) is always looking for a project, an adventure. Mr. Rice, the eye surgeon (Jonathan Smoots), recalls how an operation on Molly (Colleen Madden, background) offered hope for his personal redemption. (Photos by Carissa Dixon) 


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