Molly Sweeney

The captivating lilt of the Irish dialect combined with the rich storytelling tradition of its native speakers is an almost surefire formula for great theatre, as Tir Ná nÓg's current production of playwright Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney illustrates.

Fictionalized from a true story and based on detailed research, the play explores the life of a sensitive woman, blind since the age of 10 months, how she has learned to cope with her challenge, and what happens when her husband convinces her to have an operation to restore her sight.

The story is told from three perspectives, that of the woman, Molly Sweeney, her husband, Frank Sweeney, and the once world-renowned ophthalmologist, Mr. Rice. The characters live in their own worlds, each sitting next to a desk, facing the audience, speaking to us one at a time, sharing their perspectives on the unfolding events.

Right from the top, we are welcomed into Molly's world by Trina O'Neill's luxuriant brogue, tempered for the stage and the American ear. Engaging, and clearly excited to be sharing her story with us, O'Neill's Molly is irresistible. We learn of her father's patient and loving care as he shared his fondness for flowers with her.

These tender moments are an olfactory and tactile bonanza for the sight-impaired Molly, and form the basis of her rich, dark world. Lurking in the background, however, in the shadows of the psyche of this proudly independent little girl, are memories of her mother, in and out of institutions, glimpses of a fragile self.

Into this world, boldly treads Frank Sweeney, a do-it-yourself student of the world. With a twinkle in his eye and crisp modern Irish diction upon his lips, John Arp's Frank is a delight, winning us over with his passion for the details of odd subject matters and causes.

When the two meet, it is a collision of radically different realities, one internally-directed, the other externally-directed. In no time, Frank is on to the idea of restoring Molly's vision, the loss of which was not congenital, but had been ravaged by disease as a child, and still preserved some capacity for light.

Molly is reticent, but Frank never wavers, and soon they have an appointment with Dr. Rice. Head of a once-thriving practice, and former peer of the finest and most advanced men in his field, Rice fell upon hard times after a great personal blow.

His examinations of Molly, however, and the accompanying pep rallies with Frank, re-ignites Rice's passion for science and personal recognition. Soon he is hooked, and he intriguingly reminds us that in the annals of medicine, only a handful of people have had their sight restored.

Michael Shalhoub's Rice is circumspect and worldly. He has lost his dialect in his travels, gradually revealing to us his personal triumphs and failures as Molly's case progresses. As we revisit Rice's life, Shalhoub artfully provides the subtle shadings of character that have molded the man before us.

By separating these three compelling characters for us, the playwright deconstructs what occurred in time as a flow of intertwined events, thus elucidating the sensations and motives of the storytellers. They sit across from us, illuminated each in turn, as if we are sharing tea with them in their salon or office.

Incrementally, the intimacy of the conversation and the excellence of the performances takes us beyond captivation, as we are slowly drawn into our own sensorial world to question the nature of perception and its influence on what each of us calls "reality." And that is Molly's gift -- to remind us of the sacred nature of these unique realities and their independence from the "sighted" world's value systems.

Tir Ná nÓg's production of Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney, directed by Martin McGovern, runs through April 17th at the Bug Theatre. 303-477-9984

Bob Bows


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