BWW Reviews: Quotidian Theatre Puts On Brilliantly Executed, Unrelentingly Gloomy Production of FAITH HEALER
The Quotidian Theater's production of Brian Friel's FAITH HEALER, features excellent acting and direction (the latter by Laura Giannarelli), a top-notch set, and costumes that are perfectly suited to the personality of each character and the time period, which seems to be the late 1940's. The only problems are the technical limitations of the venue (which is more suited to lectures than to plays) and a level of pain in Mr. Friel's poetic script that is almost too much to bear.
Quotidian prides itself on being a "theatre of unanswered questions and 'zero endings,' much like life itself." It describes its mission as seeking "truth and beauty in the everyday, presenting plays in an understated, impressionistic style." Although Merriam-Webster.com defines "quotidian" as "common place" or "ordinary," there is nothing ordinary about FAITH HEALER or the lives of its three characters mired in despairing circumstances from which they cannot summon the will to escape. Why none are able to leave remains unclear, with the possible exception of the woman who loves the titular character with self-destructive devotion. Mr. Friel succeeds so well in conjuring pathetic people trapped in hopelessness that audience members should steel themselves for the misery they will witness. It is probably this unrelenting gloom that caused the first Broadway production of FAITH HEALER, in 1979, to close after twenty shows, although the 2006 revival, starring Ralph Fiennes, did better - its 117-performance limited run earned three Tony nominations plus a featured actor win for Ian McDiarmid.
The play consists of four monologues, each the length of half an act, by the three characters -- Francis Hardy (Christopher Henley), the Irish faith healer, who starts and ends the show; his neglected wife, Grace (Laura Russell); and Teddy (Nick Sampson), Frank's business manager, whose affectations mask his feelings. A la Rashomon, the characters tell different versions of what happened on their road tours across Scotland and Wales, where they would set up for one night at a time in towns with musical names and infirm people either desperate to be made whole or, according to Frank, seeking an excuse to give up hope. That Frank can cure some people is apparent - all three characters agree about that - although even he estimates his success rate at only ten percent.
Most of the time, before he ever sees the "audience," Frank senses with uncanny accuracy whether he will succeed in healing someone that night. On one occasion, he cures ten people, but only one of them gives him any money for his efforts, a result that does not sit well with a man who makes hisliving convincing strangers who can afford almost nothing to pay him for exercising his "gift" on their behalf. We learn little about the desperate people who seek Frank's services, with the notable exception of the Irish villagers who attend Frank's first appearance in his native land. Frank and Grace rhythmically intone the names of the remote villages where Frank plies his trade - villages with names so poetic that, at first, it sounds as if the characters are pronouncing an incantation in an unfamiliar language. To this itinerant trio too caught up in their own misery to think about anyone else's, only the places, and not the individuals who live there, matter.
We never find out why Frank is called a "faith healer." Frank clearly has no faith in any deity, but how about in himself? Or is he a "faith healer" because his clients have faith in someone - either in God or Frank, or perhaps both? Frank appears to have an enormous ego - at least Grace and Teddy seem to think so. Yet, if his ego is so large, why does he seem to shrivel up on stage?
Costume designer Stephanie Mumford, through her brilliant clothing selections, reveals a great deal about the characters. Frank, who has long, greasy hair, wears a shabby suit that must have been stylish many years ago. His clothing and lack of grooming belie his attempts to portray himself as a successful, charismatic magnet for people in general and women in particular. Grace, at one time content to bask in Frank's reflected light, dresses in a conservative outfit, but at least her clothes are clean. A drab shadow of her former self now that her appallingly self-centered beloved is apparently out of her life, she sucks up booze as desperately as he does. And Teddy, the flamboyant Cockney business manager who addresses everyone as "dear heart," wears a cravat and a robe that, at first glance, could double as a Victorian smoking jacket. Despite his affectations, he comes across as the most balanced of the three, and his segment provides the audience with some desperately needed comic relief, at least until he gets to the point of his rambling tale. Why did he stay with this dysfunctional couple that turned the air blue with their vicious arguments? His answer provides one of the numerous surprises of the evening.
The problem with the story of Frank, Grace, and Teddy, and their monologues that sound more like poetry than theater, is that the tale is so unrelentingly sad that the audience suffers along with the trapped characters, without being able to discern a larger purpose to their pain. This is no SCHINDLER's LIST, where acts of heroism give the audience hope. It is not even an allegory with a teaching point - what can the audience members learn except to avoid attaching themselves to cynical faith healers who drink too much and live a hand-to-mouth existence? As relief from the ongoing misery I craved more of Teddy's goofy tales, such as the one about his show business "client", Robroy, his bagpiping dog, who was too stupid to know his own name and who destroyed the possibility of stud fees by going for the throat of every female brought in to entice him. I certainly didn't want to hear more about the stop in Scotland at the remote village that is so far north that, on a clear day, it is possible to see the Hebrides from the shore - not when I knew the horror that lurked whenever a character started to describe what sounded at first like a picturesque, innocent place.
Like Ms. Mumford's costumes, Jack Sbarbori's three-part set fits the character who primarily inhabits its space. Director Giannarelli cleverly assigns one room to each character, although she lets them wander one space to the left or right. Frank's space, located in the center, is the church hall that typifies the stops along the tour. At the beginning of the play, Frank places his coat over a chair in the church hall, and the characters interact only through the coat. Grace and Teddy can reach each other only through that one vestige of Frank's, and they can reach only Frank's covering - never Frank himself.
The symbolism of the set and the coat are powerful. The limitations of the venue, however, are most apparent when the characters walk from one room to the next, remembering. During the first act, the actors remained in shadow in the darkened areas of the stage and it was difficult to see their facial expressions. During Teddy's scene, the table lamp began winking on and off and buzzing and the performance was frequently punctuated by crashes from empty chairs refusing to stay put on the metal risers. The accomplished actors and behind-the-scenes artists deserve a venue more in keeping with their considerable talent. Fortunately, the key piece of technical equipment - the scratchy sound of an old phonograph playing a 1930's song filled with irony - worked when it was supposed to.
I left the theater wrung out and confused by the script, thinking I didn't care about the sorry trio of trapped souls. But I was wrong.
The production team also includes Kayla Peterson as stage manager, Don Slater as lighting designer, Laura Giannarelli as sound designer, Ed Moser as sound and lighting technician, Jack Sbarbori and John Decker as set builders, Audrey Cefaly as graphic artist, and Kathie Mack as box office coordinator.
FAITH HEALER will run through May 25, 2014, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., with an added Saturday 2 p.m. matinee on May 24, 2014. Tickets are $30 for regular admission and $25 for seniors and students. To purchase tickets, call 1-800-838-3006 Ext.1 and ask for Quotidian Theatre, or buy online at Brian Friel's FAITH HEALER, features excellent acting and direction (the latter by Laura Giannarelli), a top-notch set, and costumes that are perfectly suited to the personality of each character and the time period, which seems to be the late 1940's. The only problems are the technical limitations of the venue (which is more suited to lectures than to plays) and" target="_blank">www.brownpapertickets.com/event/615311 . Performances take place at the Writers' Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815. The Quotidian Theatre's Web site is Brian Friel's FAITH HEALER, features excellent acting and direction (the latter by Laura Giannarelli), a top-notch set, and costumes that are perfectly suited to the personality of each character and the time period, which seems to be the late 1940's. The only problems are the technical limitations of the venue (which is more suited to lectures than to plays) and" target="_blank">www.quotidiantheatre.org .
Photo Credit: St. Johnn Blondell