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THEATER REVIEWS

Focusing on Method to the Monologue in 'Molly Sweeney'

November 15, 1996|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Molly Sweeney was blind. Then she could see.

Playwright Brian Friel tells her story in a series of intercutting monologues in "Molly Sweeney," at the Mark Taper Forum. How you respond to the play may depend on how you respond to the austerity of the monologue form.

At first Friel's method makes sense. Because the play is about a blind woman, why not restrict the visual imagery? Molly (Jane Fleiss), her husband Frank (Colin Lane) and ophthalmologist Mr. Rice (Alan Scarfe) are placed in individually lit areas--Molly at the center of the stage, the men flanking her on either side. They all speak directly to the audience, seldom acknowledging the others' presence.

If you close your eyes, you won't miss much, a fact that is reminiscent of what Molly's father told her about her own condition when she was a young girl--that she wasn't missing a lot just because she was blind. Her father used words to show Molly the world, and Friel does the same with his audience. It's easy to imagine "Molly Sweeney" as a radio drama.

Of course for sighted people, closing your eyes during even a radio play isn't advisable if you can't stay mentally alert. Fortunately, Friel appears to have created Molly's husband with the idea, at least partially, of keeping everyone awake.

Frank is a fellow of great and sudden enthusiasms. He prowls the stage, venturing far outside his assigned area, occasionally breaking the unspoken rule about not acknowledging the others. As he spouts his latest ideas, he sometimes stops short with a sharp awareness that he has strayed from the subject or stumbled upon an irony. Lane's energy makes Frank--and the play--come alive at crucial moments.

Molly willingly goes along with Frank's passions, including his latest--to restore her sight. Blind since the age of 10 months, she's happy with her job as a massage therapist in the Irish town of Ballybeg and with her life with Frank. Fleiss conveys the vacancy in Molly's eyes yet also the sunny spirit within her soul. But Frank is convinced that the residual glimmers of light and dark within his wife's visual field mean that her eyesight might be restored, given the right surgery.

What does she have to lose?

The third player, Mr. Rice, isn't nearly as convinced as Frank that the surgery will work. Even if it does, he warns the couple, the work will have just begun. Molly will have to learn to see. She can identify flowers by touch and smell, for example, but she'll have to learn their names by sight. It will take time and effort.

Mr. Rice doesn't let his doubts stand in the way of Frank's will, however, for the doctor has his own professional reputation and self-esteem to restore, in addition to Molly's vision. He has never recovered from the day his wife left him to join one of his colleagues in New York. He hopes Molly's case will lift him out of his funk. Scarfe's eyes and voice let a few hints of Mr. Rice's inner life poke out of his shell of professorial detachment.

The second act picks up the narrative on the morning of the operation. As Molly's bandages come off, director Gwen Arner and projection designer David Flad use a screen at the rear of the stage to give the audience an idea of what Molly perceives. No screen is mentioned in the stage directions of the published text, but it's a smart idea. As we struggle, with Molly, to make sense of the shifting images, we get a graphic way to share her excitement and to make out the blurry limits of her new view. At last, here is a solid reason to see this play as opposed to just listening to it.

Unfortunately, after this one scene, the play falls back into its previous pattern of monologues, despite the fact that Molly's descriptions of her brave new world paint a radically changed picture. At one point she talks about how "every color dazzled. Every light blazed. Every shape an apparition, a specter that appeared suddenly from nowhere and challenged you. And all that movement--nothing ever still." This all sounds extremely dramatic, yet the play and production don't begin to reflect this level of intense stimulation.

Molly soon falters under the weight of her sensory overload. Too soon, really, judging from a feeling that key scenes of the narrative aren't sufficiently represented on stage. Most critically, by play's end, Frank is off to a job in Ethiopia while Molly is deteriorating in a hospital, yet we never hear--let alone see--the encounter where he tells her he's leaving or actually says goodbye. Monologues can go only so far, and here they fail.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* "Molly Sweeney," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Also Nov. 25, 8 p.m. Dark Nov. 28. Ends Dec. 22. $29-$37. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Jane Fleiss: Molly

Colin Lane: Frank

Alan Scarfe: Mr. Rice

By Brian Friel. Directed by Gwen Arner. Set by Kate Edmunds. Costumes by Susan Hilferty. Lights by Paulie Jenkins. Sound by Michael Roth and Jon Gottlieb. Music supervised and arranged by Michael Roth. Production stage manager Mary K. Klinger.

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