This past week, I watched New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre and its streaming production of Brian Friel’s excellent play “Molly Sweeney,” which happily assured me that despite the country’s long shutdown and the blackout of Broadway, live theater will not only survive but continue to thrive during and after the coronavirus pandemic is history.
As William Shakespeare once advised us, “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
All it takes is a great writer, cast and a fine production to bring it all back into focus.
So long as we have writers as prolific and perceptive as Friel and performers as sensitive and talented as Geraldine Hughes as the blind Molly, Ciarán O’Reilly as her husband Frank, and Paul O’Brien as Mr. Rice, a discredited surgeon who seeks to restore Molly’s sight.
Artistic Director Charlotte Moore had the good sense and ability to easily transport this engaging production from the stage to the screen without missing a beat.
The play is a series of many long separate monologues, brilliantly written by Friel, in which each of the three characters reveals his or her innermost thoughts without ever directly interacting with the others.
It was ideally suited for this Zoom-style presentation where each performer appeared solo on screen.
Molly appears first. She’s an Irish lass in her late 30s or early 40s who relates how, though blind since infancy, she has been taught by her father, a judge, to recognize all manner of names and shapes of things by their sound, smell, touch and her own innate sense.
When we first meet her, she is a contented, self-sufficient woman, capable of earning a livelihood to support herself, who recently married Frank. Frank believes her life would be so much better if by some miracle her sight were to be restored.
Mr. Rice next appears to discuss his relationship with Molly as the surgeon chosen by Frank to do the operation, as he relates how his wife left him for a more successful colleague.
We next hear from Frank, a failed opportunist and cheese maker who continues to seek satisfaction from impossible goals.
They all are aware of the ultimate question of what happens to Molly and her world if she has sight.
Though Molly expresses her fear and doubt on the eve of her operation, wondering “what have I to gain?” she reluctantly accedes to the wishes of her husband and doctor who ask “what have you got to lose?”
The outcome of the situation should continue to haunt you even after the curtain falls and the show has ended.
How often we do things to help others thinking it is in their best interests, only to find them ending in disastrous results.
I am reminded of the New Testament’s version of the Golden Rule, which tells us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
But do we really have the right to determine what to do to others based on what we personally want for ourselves?
I think a more appropriate principle is the Old Testament version, which is more defensive and protective: “Do not do unto others that which you do not wish them to do unto you.”
Both Frank and the doctor were well aware of the possible consequences, yet went ahead with the operation.
They each went forward, for their own personal reason. Frank, wanting to become successful as a “savior” in his own mind, and the doctor to regain his old prestige and reputation and perhaps win back his wife.
Molly, compliant and anxious to please, decided to take the risk of seeing.
Despite the restrictions of the quarantine, dramatic stage productions will continue to divert, entertain and enlighten us.
My wife tells me that we may have seen a production of this play, which Friel based on an essay by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, at Steppenwolf Theatre in 1996. That show featured Jennifer Baron, Rick Snyder and Robert Breuler.
However, I don’t recall — and frankly, I seriously doubt it, for having seen this most recent production and being so impressed with the profound issues it raises, had I seen the earlier performance I am certain I never would have forgotten it.
Either way, I’ll be seeing this play again. It was scheduled to run in Goodman Theatre’s current season but the March and April dates were postponed until sometime in the 2020-21 season due to the pandemic.
The eventual run will feature Chicago favorite Kate Fry, “Downton Abbey” actor Brendan Coyle and Christopher Donahue. Goodman’s artistic director Robert Falls will direct. Stay tuned and don’t miss it.
Final verdict: 4 gavels.