Blindness illuminates 'Molly'

February 18, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Old sayings often say things best and few are more applicable to "Molly Sweeney" than: There are none so blind as those who will not see.

This drama by Ireland's most acclaimed living playwright, Brian Friel, recounts the experience of a blind woman who, urged by her husband and an ophthalmologist, undergoes operations to restore the vision she lost at 10 months.

But Friel's thought-provoking play, which is receiving a riveting production at Washington's Arena Stage, is about much more than literal blindness. Above all, it is about the arrogance of assuming your way -- political, religious, social, whatever -- is the right way, and about the danger of trying to impose that way on someone else.

Jenny Bacon's Molly may only be able to make out light and shadows, but she is the transcendent beacon that illuminates the play (and, though they may not realize it, the people around her). Without the standard props of a white cane or dark glasses, Bacon portrays Molly as a young woman at ease in darkness, a woman, as Molly's doctor notes, devoid of self-pity or resignation. Indeed, when she describes giving herself over to the joyous sensation of swimming, you can almost see the water coursing over her body.

In contrast, the other two characters are extremely ill-at-ease. Molly's husband, Frank, has drifted from one seemingly altruistic calling to another. TJ Edwards conveys this do-gooder attitude with abundant enthusiasm, but it's clear the ophthalmologist is right when he guesses that Molly is Frank's "latest cause."

Not that the ophthalmologist, Mr. Rice, is devoid of self-interest. A once-promising doctor, he suffered a breakdown when his wife left him and has been drowning his hopes in alcohol ever since. Richard Bauer plays Rice as a sensitive, intelligent man, and though the only one to doubt the wisdom of Molly's surgery, he is swayed by "the one-in-a-thousand opportunity that can rescue a career."

The richly lyrical script is structured somewhat similarly to Friel's "Faith Healer," which played a pre-Broadway run at the Mechanic Theatre in 1979. Like that play, "Molly Sweeney" also has a cast of three and consists entirely of monologues.

But two significant differences make this a far more dynamic work. The first is that Friel has written the script so the monologues intersect, instead of having each character merely present his point of view in "Rashomon"-like succession.

The second difference stems primarily from director Kyle Donnelly's staging, which adheres to the script by assigning distinct playing areas to each character, but departs from it by allowing the characters to move freely from one area to another.

Granted, the playwright's original intention was reportedly to keep the characters separate and seated, presumably in an effort to focus on Molly's aural world instead of the theatergoer's visual one. But Donnelly's approach increases dramatic tension, and thanks to Linda Buchanan's set design, which surrounds the playing areas with precariously jagged rocks, our appreciation of the boundaries of Molly's world is maintained.

In her final monologue, Molly tells us that when Rice initially asked if she could distinguish between light and dark, she thought he was asking "profound questions about good and evil and about the source of knowledge and about big mystical issues." Without hammering you over the head with it -- but adhering to the tradition of blind sages dating back to the Greeks -- "Molly Sweeney" is about all those things. It is a true light in the darkness.

'Molly Sweeney'

Where: Arena Stage, 6th Street and Maine Avenue, S.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays; through March 23

Tickets: $23-$42

Call: (202) 488-3300

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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