The ways in which in our inner stories will never be anyone’s but our own; the ways in which events are elevated to myth; the ways in which three people living in a van together for years, traveling the cold damp of Scotland and Wales, can spend every day virtually inside each others’ bodies but can come out of it somehow not knowing each other at all, somehow utterly alone. And of course: The ways in which we seek, and sometimes even find, redemption.
Such are the themes of Faith Healer, a dark drama by playwright Brian Friel and presented by Taos’ Odenbear Theatre Company, directed by Bruce Katlin. It latches inside you and is slow to let go. After a run in Taos, the small production (a cast of three) made a regional tour; SFR was able to catch it in Dixon on Nov. 11. It finishes this weekend at Teatro Paraguas.
The play, which runs a bit less than two hours, is made up of four monologues. It opens with Francis (Frank) Hardy, an Irish faith healer traveling the countryside of Scotland and Wales sometime in the amorphous 20th century. From first entrance, actor Jeff Spicer strikes a commanding image. He is dashing but severe—when he smiles, dimples make him irresistible; when he doesn’t, his cheeks become sunken, his face drawn and grave.
The story he tells is harsh: He, his wife Grace and manager Teddy have spent years driving around, stopping at churches and pubs, putting on one-night-only shows where the ill or infirm take their chances at being healed by Frank’s touch. It’s unclear whether Frank even believes he has any particular power, but he must keep up the act—which even he refers to as a “charade” or “performance.”
He paints himself as introspective and analytical of his own character. He speaks fondly of Grace and Teddy. He seems dreadfully unhappy, but is mercifully charismatic. Frank seems a benevolent showman who quietly knows he’s full of crap.
But then, every once in awhile, his act works. Someone is healed. A blind person can suddenly see; a twisted leg is somehow straightened. Frank, however, seems even more tortured by those he heals than those he doesn’t; as if to say, And now they expect me to do it again.
After we meet Frank, his wife Grace takes the stage. Played by Irene Loy, Grace is an old woman in a young body. Her face is exhausted, her clothes are dowdy; she keeps a bottle of Jameson on the side table at all times.
Any warm feelings we had about Frank are short-lived. Grace begins to recount her time with him, and clearly, the experience of being married to Frank was traumatic. Their bad years together were peppered with even worse instances of violence and tragedy.
But it isn’t overbearing, somehow; Loy’s portrayal of Grace is authentic and natural, and we’re entranced by her soft brogue. That isn’t to say, of course, that her tale isn’t disturbing. It is. But it feels digestible in Loy’s calm, understated delivery.
Our stomachs drop, however, when Grace starts to directly contradict Frank’s stories. Her version of specific events are so opposed to his that we felt frustrated—with ourselves, for having fallen for Frank’s act. We even knew it was an act. But we bought it anyway. We felt healed and understood. We were conned.
At intermission, we’re left haunted by the place name (Kinlochbervie, in Sutherland, in the north of Scotland, two miles south of the village, in a field of the left hand side of the road as you go north) that became like an incantation to Grace and Frank as their parallel stories reach their climax.
The second half of the play initially lets up on the intensity as Frank’s bawdy manager Teddy says his piece. Played by an amiable and comedic Jim Hatch (also artistic director and founder of Odenbear), he directly contradicts Grace’s version of events in his very first sentence. But we take that in stride by now. His cockney accent is cartoonish (he calls us “dear ‘art;” counts one, two and “numba free”), a stark contrast to Grace and Frank’s soft Irish lilts. From his mouth we take the differing stories not as sinister manipulations, but rather an example of small-town syndrome, where not every story is the same but none is necessarily untrue.
“Friends is friends and work is work, and, as the poet says, never the twain shall meet,” Teddy says with eyebrows raised. “Okay? Okay.”
Teddy refers to Frank and Grace as his colleagues, and perhaps in a sense they are—but it becomes clear that they were far more than that to Teddy, who loves each of them equally, despite their endless flaws. The monologue that starts off jaunty slips slowly to pensive recollection, because of course it does; this is not a happy story. This is a tragedy, at its core. But it’s beautiful.
After Teddy speaks (and breaks our ‘arts), Frank returns to the stage. Perhaps everyone was waiting to see what the man of the hour would have to say for himself. He tricked us into liking him, then had his dishonesty exposed … Now what?
Somehow, our anger dissolves. It melds with understanding. It confuses with frustration—not at Frank, or Grace, or Teddy, but at the cruel circumstances around them. When Frank finally finds some kind of closure, it’s unclear whether it’s absolution, a relief, surrender or simply a void.
But isn’t that true of everything, in the end?
Faith Healer 7:30 pm Friday and Saturday Dec. 1 and 2. $20. Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie, 424-1601
Charlotte's top skill is finding other people's mistakes. When she isn't correcting your grammar or reviewing local theatrical productions, she's probably reading obsessively about feminism. She loves barbecue, and has an art project Instagram account at @blackdresspics.