As the Friday night crowd began filtering into the Black Box at the Adrienne, soft music filled the dark, intimate playhouse. It wasn’t overwhelming, just merely a whisper through the nearly packed room, a compliment to the scenery. The audience was elevated on three platforms on three sides, staring down at the stage, observant. The stage, merely a victim to the crowd’s judgments, waiting, exposed, for what was soon to come underway – a distressing and intriguing play about chance, failure, misguided hopes, and loneliness.
The empty stage housed three chairs accompanied by three stools, placed for sign language interpreters, but only for tonight. Behind the seats was a translucent screen splashed with blues and greens, and long stemmed flowers scattered about. To the side was a golden rectangular window with deep brown stripes separating it into six panels, the mimic of a windowpane.
This was the introduction to Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney, staged by Amaryllis Theatre Company and brilliantly directed by Tom Reing. Before the actors even made it to the stage, the audience was already given a hint of what they were about to witness through the melancholy movements and the sanguine notes sighing from the speakers. It was a perfect metaphor for such a significant play, set in three revolving monologues, about a middle-aged woman, blind since infancy, who regains her sight, only to sadly go insane in the end.
Part of Philadelphia’s Independence Starts Here: A Festival of Disability Arts and Culture, running October 18 through November 20, the troupe’s revival of this play, which premiered at the Gate Theatre in 1994 in Dublin, Ireland, is the first to feature a blind actress in the title role, the talented New Yorker Pamela Sabaugh, whose disability could not be detected during her performance. She is supported by two other gifted Irish-American actors: Stephen Patrick Smith as the bumbling but good-hearted Frank, and Michael Toner as Molly’s egotistical, fraught and red-faced optometrist Dr. Rice.
It goes like this: Molly (Sabaugh), living in Donegal, Ireland with her husband Frank (Smith), is coerced (although Molly will never say so) into having surgery so she can see what she feels. She’s nervous, of course, because this life-changing operation will jolt her from the secure, sightless existence she has grown into – a world that allows her the “rare understanding” of her surroundings. But she does it for Frank, who Smith flawlessly portrays with a lowbrow temperament and confused rapport, and for Dr. Rice (Toner), a man desperately trying to regain importance as a doctor, sacrificing Molly’s sanity for his own.
Sabaugh portrays Molly as someone who is unsure of herself, no matter how confident, in her pink cardigan and demure floral dress, she stands. But she also reserved, and only in Act II, which shows the trio after the first of Molly’s eye operations is done, does she begin to unravel, while her male counterparts are well underway of their undoing in the first act. And all three escape their dooming realities in different ways – Molly by way of insanity, Frank by way of a job opportunity in Ethiopia, and Dr. Rice by leaving Donegal behind for a quieter life.
Smith’s Frank and Toner’s Dr. Rice are polar-opposites. Dr. Rice, in recollections of his patient, never makes eye contact, instead, he talks to himself for his own sake. He lives deep in emotion and deep into the past, never forgetting the heartache of his wife leaving him for his colleague. He talks as if he’s confessing, and the audience is his priest. But his remorse only comes when he fails to restore Molly’s sight and fails himself. Frank, however, is straightforward, lacking in any emotion, or at least he doesn’t know how to feel, and he has an incredible thirst for knowledge, which makes his mind a hotbed for useless information. He’s also afraid, something Smith never shows outright, just in his subtle gestures.
And Molly is caught in the middle of their reconditioning. Frank truly loves her, but Smith successfully depicts Frank as someone who doesn’t comprehend fair Molly’s disability. He only knows what the books at the library tell him. He thinks – no, he believes – that restoring Molly’s eyesight will make her happier and her life easier. He’s a passionate guy but never faced with someone who is blind and being terribly fascinated by blindness, Frank never connects on that emotional level Molly is so desperately seeking. And Dr. Rice, well he’s just a sycophant.
It’s a play – a message – we know all too well. Whether it’s an aliment, sexual orientation, religious observance, or personal appearance that renders you different in the eyes of a society that ritualistically determines what is normal, Molly Sweeney does well by showing how forcing someone to change what you think is perverse – even if it is coming from the best of intentions – can only lead to unnecessary agony and bitterness.
Annamarya Scaccia is the author of the poetry and prose collection “Destiny for a Tragedy.” A nascent journalist, she has written for several online and print publications including Origivation, 24/Seven, Alternative Press, New York Woman, AskEJean.com, HotIndieNews.com, SexHerald.com, TheyWillRockYou.com, and StarsandScars.com.