del Rosso Review: Molly Sweeney

 Irish Repertory Theatre (Charlotte Moore, Artistic Director and Ciarán O’Reilly, Producing Director) presents a virtual performance of Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney. The first in a new series, A Performance on Screen, Molly Sweeney is directed by Charlotte Moore (London Assurance). Reprising their roles from the acclaimed 2011 Irish Rep production are Geraldine Hughes and Ciarán O’Reilly, with the addition of Paul O’Brien. 

Perhaps it is because I have every faith in the Irish Repertory Theatre due to attending their plays for eons, or perhaps it is because the work of Brian Friel lends itself to the virtual medium (I am thinking of Faith Healer done this way as well); but I approached this performance on screen with no trepidation whatsoever. It could also be because the word “zoom” was not involved. 

Molly Sweeney, in the capable hands of Charlotte Moore and the characters inhabited expertly by three superb actors, loses nothing in translation. In fact, it was enhanced. When each spoke, his or her entire face took over the screen, so every eye cast downward, every eyebrow lift, every facial expression was nakedly on display. No hiding in this medium.   

Geraldine Hughes’s Molly Sweeney begins with a lovely memory: her father, a judge, taking her out to the garden in the evening and teaching her the names and colors of the flowers. Her mother was in and out of institutions for a nervous disorder throughout Molly’s childhood. Blind since she was ten months old, Molly thrives in her world in her own way. She works as a massage therapist, has an independent life. She is confident. Happy. When she describes the intense pleasure of swimming, she says she thought that the seeing people must be jealous of her.  Molly does not use the word “disability” — but her husband, Frank, and her doctor do. I could listen to Hughes’s lilting voice all day. Her Molly has a fragility about her, a bit like her flowers. And she has no barrier against the elements. 

Ciarán O’Reilly’s Frank Sweeney is charming, unemployed, garrulous, and barrels headfirst  from championing one cause to the next until either he gets bored, or the cause goes south. Frank learns of an eye operation that he believes will restore Molly’s sight. He wants her to have it. Has done all kinds of research on eye diseases and whatnot. Thinks she’d be a great candidate. Thinks it will change both of their lives. His, in particular, for the better. So he finally finds an ophthalmologist who agrees to perform the operation. 

Paul O’Brien’s Mr. Rice is a snob. Dislikes Frank immediately. Takes him for an uneducated layabout. In a folder of research material Frank gives him that includes details about Molly and himself, Mr. Rice comments, “Honeymoon Stratford-upon-Avon – his idea of self-improvement, no doubt.” Likes Molly immediately. She reminds him of his ex wife who left him for a brilliant colleague, thus ending his high-flying career and ushering in a lot of whisky. He believes Molly does not have a good chance at seeing in total, but he also believes she is the case that can revive his career. He has a bit of a God-complex. Hubris. What he fervently hopes is that his reputation will be restored by restoring Molly Sweeney’s vision. 

Molly consents to this operation, partly for herself but mostly for her husband. The night before the surgery, at a party in her honor, Molly has a wave of revelation: “How do they know what they’re taking away from me? They can’t know.”

She’s right. 

Both men do consider what they are doing. Frank concedes Molly will have to re-learn everything, a whole new world. Mr. Rice figures she has nothing to lose. He is wrong. Molly has everything to lose. And because both men put themselves and their interests before hers, she does. 

Each of these people is isolated in their own way. Molly, who is in her own world of blindness; Frank, who fills his head with information that leads to delusions of grandeur, leaving no room for self-examination;  Mr. Rice, who recedes from life in the aftermath of his wife’s desertion. But unlike the men, Molly was happy. 

This Performance on Screen of Molly Sweeney was brilliant, touching, tragic. We need more of this right now, more theatre, more virtual plays, more art, like water from a well.