Molly Sweeney, the new Lantern Theater production streaming on demand and now extended through March 7, explores how we build our private worlds. Beautifully written (playwright Brian Friel was incapable of writing a bad sentence) and acted, it’s a reminder that good theater endures. If this production doesn’t conquer all its challenges, it leaves us thinking and feeling with expanded hearts and minds.
Molly Sweeney debuted in 1994 at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. The play was based on the Oliver Sacks article “To See and Not to See,” about a Virginia man who became one of the very few blind people ever to have sight restored. Friel re-sets the story in a little Irish town called Ballybeg in remote County Donegal. This production was filmed onstage this fall by Emmy-winning Natural Light Films, whose quick-cuts impart some momentum.
The play unfolds in a series of soliloquies, from character to character. All remain seated on benches about six feet apart. They don’t look, speak, or react to each other. Except for a few moments where an actor might stand up, there is no movement across the austere stage. Director Peter DeLaurier elicits intense, persuasive work from the cast, but that static quality is a big hurdle to clear.
Geneviève Perrier is calm and passionate as Molly, 41, a massage therapist blind since infancy. Ian Merrill Peakes is hinky, comic, and piteous as Frank, her husband who takes her to see Mr. Rice (terrific Anthony Lawton), an eye surgeon who agrees to operate.
Perrier as Molly looks down and away from us almost always, in both humility and strength. As Rice says, she has “no self-pity, no hint of resignation.” Thanks to her father’s loving upbringing, she has a tough center. “How self-sufficient she was when I first saw her!” Rice says.
There will be a price to pay; what ensues is both miracle and tragedy. Molly must, as Frank puts it, “Learn how to see.” Sight has no pathways in her brain, no preparation in her psychology. Rice asks the question for her: “How much do I want this world?”
But if Molly is blind in fact, both men are blind to her.
What neither appreciate is this: Molly loves her life. (“I didn’t think of it as a deprived existence.”) With touch, smell, taste, and hearing, she builds her world. She remembers her father teaching her, by scent and touch, the wildflower called Baby Blue Eyes. Almost naughtily, she tells us, “I got more pleasure, more delight, from swimming than sighted people can ever get.”
Neither man sees Molly for herself. As Rice says of Frank, “Her blindness was his latest cause.” And Rice, haunted by “the hunger for accomplishment, the greed of achievement,” sees in her the “chance of a lifetime” to redeem his failed career.
What of Molly? She wants the men’s hopes to be fulfilled. She hopes for “a brief excursion to this land of vision; not to live there — just to visit. … And then, oh yes, then to return home to my own world with all that rare understanding within me forever.”
But as the operation nears, she sees what’s before her. She hasn’t chosen this. “How can they know what they’re taking from me?”
DeLaurier and company faced two big challenges: that static quality and the limitations of being screen-bound. The acting and editing do much, but the second act lags. It’s more than a matter of cutting. More imaginative use of the video arts could have imparted breadth and life to this story of three visionless people.
Lantern Theater Company filmed production streaming on demand through Feb. 28 via lanterntheater.org, $20 for one viewing.