Review: APT's 'Molly Sweeney'

With a play on the balance between darkness and light, 'Molly Sweeney' gives its audience something to think about

Aug 5, 2013

Jonathan Smoots and Colleen Madden in 'Molly Sweeney'

Jonathan Smoots and Colleen Madden in 'Molly Sweeney'

Photo by Carissa Dixon

American Players Theatre’s staging of Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney begins in near-total darkness—a move that’s completely intentional: Friel, one of the giants of Irish theater, and APT director Kenneth Albers are trying to suggest the situation of the play’s title character, a woman who’s been largely blind since birth.

It’s one of the several ways in which APT’s production (running in rep at the Touchstone Theatre through September 28) cleverly deploys light and dark to hammer home its impact. While one actor speaks, the others sit in darkness. At the close of the first act, the lights actually flicker and go out, leaving daguerreotype afterimages of the actors on the audience’s eyeballs. Everything dances on the line between sight and blindness.

That’s where Molly (Colleen Madden) lives her day-to day existence, having happily forged a reasonably successful life as a masseuse. Her husband Frank (David Daniel) is a gregarious, ne’er-do-well hummingbird, flitting from whatever subject’s most recently caught his fancy, from a trip to Ethiopia—or is it Abyssinia?—to relocating badgers out of a flood plain. If Daniel’s portrayal weren’t as energetic and engaging as it is, his character would be easy to dislike, since his love for Molly is clearly only as deep as his attention span. Restoring her sight becomes his latest windmill, and that leads him to Dr. Rice (Jonathan Smoots), a fallen eye surgeon who might just have the skills to lead Molly into a new, sighted world.

Molly Sweeney is very much a play of words, not action. The on-stage activity is as sparse as APT’s staging, anchored by three chairs, a grayish slatted screen, and literally nothing else. The characters never directly look at or address each other—although there are plenty of points when their narratives about shared events interweave as if they’re painting the story together at some kind of somber dinner party. Even though her Irish brogue occasionally seems a trifle too affected, Madden is great at wrapping her line delivery around Friel’s rich language as she evokes memories of Molly’s childhood with her devoted dad and the joie de vivre she felt while swimming.

These vignettes connect the characters to the audience, but the disconnects between the three of them don’t resolve. As the possibility of life-altering surgical intervention for Molly looms like a unexpected shadow, serious, life-altering questions are squared up with scant consideration: Have I anything to gain? What has she to lose?

Plenty, it turns out. The play’s second act deals with the aftermath of Molly’s operation, which, after a few brief eyeblink weeks of success, collapses her world back into a darkness that’s now unfamiliar and utterly alienating. It’s here, in the transformative transition from dark to light and back again, that Madden’s performance shines brightest. She’s amazing in the ways she captures the terror, exhilaration and nausea that comes from the experience of being thrust into a world of utter sensory overload.

As Rice, Smoots gives a powerful turn as a man who never quite saw the ways his life and brilliant career were slipping away from him. Most of his lines focus on flashbacks to his meteoric early career flameout and the devastation of losing his wife and children to a professional rival.

For all of Friel’s beautiful language and carefully structured metaphors, Molly Sweeney’s a difficult play to embrace, given that two of its three characters are dangerously self-centered, and its likable central character ends up like a forgotten, failed experiment. But ultimately, that’s’ the point: These people never saw each other at all. Friel and Albers make sure we do see them, and our eyes and souls are all the more scarred for it.

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about and reviewing Madison-area theater for nearly 15 years.

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