A playgoer could listen with eyes closed to “Faith Healer” at Quotidian Theatre and get lost in the language of Irish dramatist Brian Friel. The four long monologues that make up the show lilt with poetic phrases and descriptions so ripe you can see the people and smell the pubs.
Not that closing one’s eyes during Quotidian’s more-than-workmanlike production is recommended, but this is definitely a piece for people who like to listen and don’t mind waiting for secrets to reveal themselves.
Under director Laura Giannarelli’s hand, actors Christopher Henley, Laura Russell and Nick Sampson do right by Friel’s funny, tragic tale, which had its New York premiere in 1979. If they occasionally stumble over the massive texts — the monologues run more than half an hour apiece — they recover. Still, it’s a question of how deftly they mix their characters’ physicality with the words. Details, such as pouring out a beer or smoking a cigarette or just shifting moods and moving about the place feel more rehearsed than organic at this point. The poetry is there, but not the full embodiment. It’s a tougher thing to achieve when actors can’t engage directly with one another.
Henley plays Francis Hardy, a.k.a. Frank, an Irish faith healer who toured the “dying villages” of Scotland and Wales in what looks to have been the 1950s, claiming he could heal the blind, lame, barren and disfigured. He traveled with Grace (Russell, a little too prim), whom he likes to call his mistress, though she was his wife, and his Cockney manager, Teddy (Sampson, hitting the right self-deluding tone). All three admit in their separate and often contradictory accounts that they barely scraped by. Destitution and even violence shadowed them.
Frank’s first monologue opens the play. Tall and lanky in a sagging overcoat, threadbare suit and vest, dank hair hanging over his collar, his voice rheumy, Henley’s Frank intones the ancient names of Welsh villages where he toured. His posture and delivery are that of a man accustomed to dazzling people just reading from the phone book. He stands in the center of an unremarkable tripartite set, his area depicting a typical venue for Frank’s shows: a few chairs, a lectern and a banner proclaiming: “The Fantastic Francis Hardy / Faith Healer / One Night Only.” On either side of this are suggestions of two depressing London “bed-sitting rooms” to which characters decamp after the touring ends.
All three characters tell the same shattering tale with variations: Grace is the ill-used helpmate, unable to stop loving that drunk, neglectful man of hers. Teddy is the loyal manager who loved both Grace and Frank and can’t quite admit the act was a bust. Frank is the “talent,” too smart not to know he was a phony, yet too egotistical not to think maybe he had real powers, drowning any doubts in whiskey.
Even with performances that remain tentative and three actors who, though they never share the stage, don’t seem ideally matched, Quotidian’s “Faith Healer” lets you bask in the language and has more than a few highly affecting moments.
Playwright Friel, who wrote “Translations” and “Dancing at Lughnasa,” among many other works, has a love of language that spills out of his characters and into the audience.
Faith Healer, by Brian Friel
Directed by Laura Giannarelli. Set design, Jack Sbarbori; lighting, Don Slater; costumes, Stephanie Mumford; sound, Laura Giannarelli. Tickets $25-$30. Two hours, 40 minutes, including an intermission. Presented through May 25 by Quotidian Theatre Company at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. www.quotidiantheatre.org.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.