BWW Reviews: Stark Naked Theatre Company's FAITH HEALER Creates Skeptics and Believers
When it comes to theatre in Houston, I find that Kim Tobin and Philip Lehl, Co-Executive Directors at Stark Naked Theatre Company, only program plays that everyone should see. Thus, when they announced Brian Friel's FAITH HEALER, a play I was unfamiliar with, I began to immerse myself in any scrap of material I could find about the play, knowing it was a show I ought to know. After catching the final preview performance earlier this week, I felt like the boat must have passed me by. Generally regarded as a masterpiece, Brian Friel's FAITH HEALER didn't impress me in the ways that it seemingly bowls everyone else over.
Brian Friel takes modern audiences out of their comfort zones with his writing for FAITH HEALER. The plot is presented in four subtly layered monologues that are directly addressed to the audience. In each scene, the character on stage bares their soul and explores their individual illusions, delusions, and the effect of losing faith. The show is not devoid of conversation. The cast speaks to us, but other than our thoughts, the conversational interaction that audiences expect from plays is not traditionally present. Over the four monologues, the audience is told three different accounts of Francis "Frank" Hardy's career as a Faith Healer in the United Kingdom, including one remarkable night in Wales where he healed 10 people.
When FAITH HEALER debuted on Broadway in 1979, it ran for a paltry 20 performances, but found success later with award winning revivals in 2001 at London's Almedia Theatre and in 2006 at Broadway's Booth Theatre. Garnering critical praise for being hypnotic and mesmerizing in these productions, I expected to feel the same after seeing it in Houston. However, I found fleeting moments to be engaging and interesting while a majority of the production left me in soporific haze of disinterest. I just did not connect with any of the three characters across the two acts. I have a hard time solely blaming director John Tyson for this. The writing, which is often spoken of highly for its lyrical quality and deep philosophical insight, frustrates me because the differing perspectives are riddled with innumerous inconsistencies and the plots seemingly crumble away instead of actually building into something with a coherent ending.
Philip Lehl, one of my absolute favorite actors in Houston, takes on the titular role. His monologues open and close the production, setting and solidifying the tone for the performance. Where Ben Brantley of the New York Times praised Ralph Fiennes for delivering an enigmatic portrayal of Francis Hardy as an egocentric narcissist, Philip Lehl creates a man that is broken by his own inability to comprehend if he is actually gifted. His Francis Hardy distrusts his own abilities to heal and comes across as quietly introspective and devastated by a life that may have been lived for the wrong purpose. This heavy handed approach to the character builds an inexhaustible sense of melancholy that permeates the entire play, holding the audience in a weighty stupor of life's disappointments and dissatisfaction.
Usually Kim Tobin delivers electrifying performances that command the audience's attention; yet her portrayal of Grace Hardy, Francis Hardy's disgruntled wife, is so subdued that I struggled to pay attention to her monologue. First and foremost, the decision to have her deliver her entire monologue seated truly hurts her performance. Any tension in the monologue comes from the manipulation of her voice and facial expression, which she does with deft skill. However, seated for the whole performance, she is unable to play with physical and visual levels. Furthermore, Kim Tobin, despite being seated the whole time, is not convincingly weak. As an audience, we never truly buy into the idea that she, as a woman, had her identity erased by her husband.