“Nearly a third of the nation’s population [exists] in a non-reality-based belief system… dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information… So much of the American electorate, including those who should know better, blindly cast ballots for slogans, smiles, the cheerful family tableaux, narratives and the perceived sincerity and the attractiveness of candidates. We confuse how we feel with knowledge.”—Chris Hedges, “America the Illiterate” (2008)
There have only been twenty documented cases of people who have recovered their sight after living a lifetime of blindness. Brian Friel’s MOLLY SWEENEY, which premiered at the Gate Theatre in 1994 and is now in a must-see production by Irish Heritage Theatre, imagines another. It was inspired by neurologist Oliver Sack’s case study “To See and Not See”, published in the New Yorker in May 1993, about a 50- year old Oklahoman who regained his sight after surgery.
Friel’s exquisitely written, rarely performed play follows a ferociously independent 41-year-old Irish woman (played by the unimpeachably talented Kirsten Quinn). Molly is pressured by her idealistic husband, Frank Sweeney (portrayed by the sturdy Ethan Lipkin) and her dejected eye doctor, Mr. Rice (the great Michael Toner), who are both obsessed with restoring Molly’s sight.
Performed on Teddy Moseanu’s almost barren institutional pale blue stage, delivered strictly in direct address, the three characters tell only their story only in short doses, and we are forced to sort out the truth for ourselves. Kyle Warren’s artwork hanging directly behind the actors are slabs of stain glass which could have been designed by Piet Mondrian—simple in their black lines and cobalt blue and white. Warren and Molly both reached past the concrete visible world and created their own new order in pure abstraction.
Despite the clinical conventions Friel imposes upon the production, the play blooms like the delicate baby blue eyes of a Nemophila flower, which Molly’s father introduces her to at the young of five.
There are 34 days, 12 hours, and 36 minutes left until the presidential election as I write this review. In the program, director Peggy Mecham states plainly why MOLLY SWEENEY is an essential weapon in the war to keep Philadelphia mentally agile a month before the vote, enabling us to sift through the blinding, emotionally manipulative media circus of this election to create a stable America beyond the grasp of primped up spoiled Trust-fund tyrants like Trump. At the risk of sounding preachy, it’s important to point out that plays like MOLLY SWEENEY, which is Irish storytelling boiled down to its purest form, are as essential to a cultured society as daily multi-vitamins. If you’re tired of living in a country where the arts are the first to lose funding because they are merely entertainment, this production reminds us that arts embolden people to shape their own opinions.
“Friel asks us to examine the distinctions between seeing and understanding, knowing and believing,” writes Mecham. Theater is one of the few places left where we are forced to construct a world using only language.
Turn off your phones, step away from your laptops, and run, don’t walk to the Irish Heritage Theatre’s first ever Barrymore-eligible production. [Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5, 825 Walnut Street] September 29-October 13, 2016; http://www.irishheritagetheatre.org/