Brian Friel's Faith Healer has come to Houston, courtesy of Stark Naked Theatre Company, after traversing a rocky journey from its unappreciated dismissal (20 performances) on Broadway in its 1979 debut, starring James Mason and directed by Jose Quintero. A Long Wharf Theatre revival in 1996 garnered a rave review in The New York Times, and a triumphant return to Broadway in 2006, with Ralph Fiennes and directed by Jonathan Kent, got four Tony nominations, and a win for Best Supporting Actor for Ian McDiarmid.
There are three characters, Francis Hardy, called Frank, an itinerant faith healer, his manager Teddy, and his companion Grace. They recount in four monologues - Hardy opens and closes - essentially the same tale of eking out a borderline existence traveling from small town to small town, with a key event in northern Scotland and the final appearance for Hardy in Ballybay, Ireland.
The set is simple, and brilliant in its detailing of a large banner that dominates upstage and reads "The Fantastic Francis Hardy" in line one and in much larger letters "Faith Healer" in line two. The banner is aged, with some of the letters starting to peel off. Its scrupulous authenticity unmistakably makes clear that we are about to witness a production which cares about truth. And delivers it with such ferocious, compelling beauty that we realize we are in the midst of a perfect storm of art. Here playwright, director and actors fuse together to show us, not only the brilliance of an individual work, but in fact the brilliance of theater itself.
The story is intimate - one can see why it might falter in the 1,091-seat Longacre Theatre in 1979 - and has all the elements of a ghost story told around a dying fire in the wilderness of the soul. And it has all the energy of a circus barker, demanding your attention, and all the relentless progress toward a doom we sense is coming, though its exact nature is yet unknown. And, like Shakespeare, Friel gives us interludes of rich comedy, from the manager Teddy, who moves from hilarious anecdotes to heart-breaking pathos. And, curiously, at its core, it is a love story, or stories: Teddy's affection for the couple (Grace says she has married Frank, though he denies it), the unbreakable bond between Frank and Grace, and perhaps the love of Frank for God, who has given him a gift sporadic in its frequency.
The events vary in the recollection of each participant, but there are enough overlapping similarities that we know unmistakably that they toured in poverty, that Grace became pregnant and gave birth in northern Scotland, that one night in a church in a tiny Welsh town, Hardy cured ten locals of their afflictions, including a blind lad. And that the cures were occasional, very occasional. And that, given a fondness for drink, and an exalted view of himself, and a capacity for hubris, that there was lying ahead for Frank an epiphany repellent in its unspoken details. Or was it what he sought, nay, insisted upon?
Philip Lehl provides a haunting portrayal of Francis Hardy, capturing his appeal but also the layer of sensing that he is in hiding, holding back from humanity, or from God, the essence of his self. Kim Tobin as Grace is more down-to-earth, grappled with hoops of steel to Hardy, with whom she ran away as a young woman, and we see the inevitability of the relationship, and come to feel her strange comfort in her prison of need.
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John Tyson as their cockney manager Teddy has the most varied role, and perhaps the richest of the three, as he describes various vaudeville acts he has managed - each one is increasingly comical - and he provides some cues that Grace is not quite as sweet as she would have you think. Tyson also directed, and the movements of Teddy, even if only to open another bottle of stout, are filled with significance. This is the role that won the Tony, and Tyson's performance is engrossing, and so vivid that it will be etched into your memory. Tyson's direction of the entire play is superb. . The venue of Studio 101 is ideal for this work, as its intimacy lends itself to the belief that each character is speaking directly to you, drawing you into its immediacy and challenge. This remarkable production is so wonderful that it may well be the ideal one to drag non-theater-going friends to, so that they learn just exactly how good this particular art form can be.
A memorable production of a brilliant play soars into brilliance, as playwright, actors, and director combine to create a work so filled with intelligence, humor, suspense and love that its breathtaking power will linger long after you have left the theater, humbled because of your exposure to theatrical genius.
Faith Healer continues through February 8, from Stark Naked Theatre Company, at Studio 101, 1824 Spring St. For information or ticketing, call 832-866-6514 or contact www.starknakedtheatre.com.