Reivew: Faith Healer (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

  
 

The bleaker side of Ballybeg

  
  

Mary Michell as Grace in a scene from Oak Park Festival Theatre's 'Faith Healer' by Brian Friel.  Photo credit: Michael Rothman

  
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
  
Faith Healer
      
Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Belinda Bremner
At Madison Street Theatre, 1010 W. Madison, Oak Park (map)
through April 16  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

In one of the four monologues that compose Brian Friel’s harrowing story about a religious performer’s doomed tour, an aging act-manager describes the one constant you experience in northern Europe: dampness. Not wetness per se, he explains, but an unyielding saturation in your clothes and hair and skin. As I sat and listened to the three desolate characters in the moody, reflective Faith Healer, that feeling of heavy saturation is something I identified with.

A scene from Oak Park Festival Theatre's 'Faith Healer' by Brian Friel.  Photo credit: Michael Rothman The unfulfilled desires and emotional stagnations of Frank, the titular artist (Kevin Theis), his deprived wife Grace (Mary Michell), and his manager Teddy (Oak Park Festival Theatre Artistic Director Jack Hickey) almost sink into your being. The present, as they portray it at least, is more or less a venue for romanticizing, decoding and brooding over the past. We never get to meet the true characters that live out the events leading up to an alluded-to tragedy–only the half-husks remembering the details years later and in some cases, from beyond the grave. It’s all very Irish.

Friel is more recognizable by his perennial hit Dancing at Lughnasa, a play that takes place in the same fictional village but counteracts its grim wallowing with nostalgia and a little whimsy. But this is different universe, one where God is less tangible, and balance or order look like fatalistic notions. Even self-centered, alcoholic Frank is clueless to whether or not he even harbors legitimate abilities. In practice, presenting Faith Healer creates a challenge: how do you stage this play and not have it read as maudlin?

Director Belinda Bremner accomplishes a semi-even tone by highlighting the speeches’ dank and sometimes searing humor. As Teddy, bottle after bottle in-hand, Hickey is so genial he’s heart-breakingly pitiful. Fantastical stories about his deceased dog give way to an account of death and a tear-soaked plea to keep business and personal relationships separate. Likewise, Michell (Grace) plays to the subtext of her relationship with her husband, conscious that every bitter detail is as equally self-destructive to dwell on as it is righteous to point out.

Faith Healer sways off-track in the one place it can’t afford to: the title-character. Theis gets carried away with the weathered Irish persona. His jagged, gravel-heavy dialect work pushes beyond brogue into a realm more comparable to a pirate or Michael Keaton in “Beetlejuice.” The effort for realism shows admirable dedication, but a character as layered as Frank aught to be born from instincts, not donned like a St. Patrick’s Day costume. Theis appears to have those instincts—veiled, they do no good.

 
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

A scene from Oak Park Festival Theatre's 'Faith Healer' by Brian Friel.  Photo credit: Michael Rothman

Faith Healer continues through April 16th at the Madison Street Theatre in Oak Park, with performances Thursday-Friday at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm.  Tickets are $25, and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at (708) 445-4440.  For more info, go to www.oakparkfestival.com.

  
  

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REVIEW: Lovers (City Lit Theater)

Half winner, half loser

 

City Lit Theater - Lovers

    
City Lit Theater presents
  
Lovers
  
Written by Brian Friel
Directed by
Terry McCabe
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr
(map)
through October 3  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Brian Friel’s Lovers is divided into two stories, “Winners” and “Losers.” The former shows a day in the life of two teenagers preparing to be wed, the latter recounts the history of a middle-aged married couple. United by their Irish setting and a common thread of underlying sorrow, the two stories reveal how the fantasies people associate with love are crushed by the circumstances of the real world. Bleak. But the poster is two withering roses, so don’t say City Lit Theater didn’t warn you.

Ironically, Winners is the weaker of the two, suffering from a lack of clarity that makes the monologue-heavy script drag. The main action shows teenaged lovers Mag (Catherine Gillespie) and Joe (Joey deBettencourt) studying for their last set of exams, not allowed to return to school due to Mag’s unplanned pregnancy. As they expose their hopes and fears for married life, two narrators (Walter Brody and Maggie Cain) describe the events that lead up to and occur after the study session, City Lit Theater - Lovers2 emphasizing the moment’s significance for the lovers. There isn’t much action in the script, with characters spending most of their time recounting past experiences or ruminating about the future, so the actors have to work even harder to keep the audience’s attention.

Gillespie and DeBettencourt succeed in capturing the innocence of their characters – with moments like an Old West style shootout between the two and an imaginary gang of their enemies – but they struggle at giving weight to their new adult problems. Much of this is due to the pace of Mag’s early monologues, rushed to the point where emotional shifts are lost and the Irish dialect is compromised. As Mag and Joe’s fate is revealed by the narrators, dramatic irony keeps the proceedings moderately interesting, but “Winners” never regains the momentum it loses at the start.

“Losers” is the saving grace of the evening, with Brody and Cain retuning to the stage as Andy and Hannah, a middle aged couple saddled with the burden of Hannah’s pious mother (Kay Schmitt). Forced to join the matriarch for nightly prayers and devotions to Saint Philomena, Andy learns the hard way that “the family that prays together, stays togethers.” The actors get an immediate hand up on the earlier scene by getting a script where things actually happen, but they also are much more adept at capturing the melancholy that runs underneath the humor. Director Terry McCabe provides plenty of slapstick physical comedy as the lovers try to find ways to fool around without disturbing Mrs. Wilson, and Brody is able to make the transition from youthful exuberance to seasoned seriousness that are lost on the young actors in “Winners.”

Lovers concludes on a cynical note, with the characters’ failures overweighing their triumphs. City Lit’s production is able to escape that fate, with a second act that overcomes the missteps of the first to create an ultimately enjoyable evening of theatre.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

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