The Irish Rep’s revival of Brian Friel’s lauded 1994 play Molly Sweeney is stunningly…er, competent. They have not made the playwright’s follow-up to the wildly popular Dancing at Lughnasa speak anew, but the production has allowed us to hear it again done well. Three engaging actors—Geraldine Hughes, Jonathan Hogan, and Rep co-founder Ciarán O’Reilly—respectively embody, with exceptional skill, the title character, a woman blind for most of her life; Dr. Rice, the once renowned surgeon who restores her sight; and Frank, Molly’s “autodidact” husband, who makes her cure his crusade.
Inspired by a case described by Oliver Sacks, Molly Sweeney has a prosy tone that can sound like a book-on-tape, but that actually leavens the format, which consists of three interdependent monologues delivered one at a time. The stage is divided into three runway-like strips on which each actor performs, going silent when it’s not his or her turn. The performers never have scenes together, or even acknowledge each other’s presence. In his review of the play’s 1996 New York debut, Vincent Canby called this method “sternly anti-theatrical.”
At first, Molly recounts how she explained to the men that gaining the ability to see will mean losing the pleasures of blindness, but she’s overwhelmed by their zeal to normalize her. Fortunately, Hughes and director Charlotte Moore seem more interested in emphasizing this dynamic than Friel. Nevertheless, Molly has adapted to 40 years of blindness so well that she can’t teach herself to comprehend the world of sight we take for granted. She becomes despondent and regresses into a limbo between inability to see and cognitive chaos that Sacks refers to as “deep blindness.” She has received the rare gift of visual perception, but falls short of truly experiencing vision. Though solid, the production lacks another sort of vision.