Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Molly Sweeney

Theatre Review by James Wilson - October 23, 2019

Paul O’Brien, Pamela Sabaugh, and Tommy Schrider
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Constructed of a series of monologues, Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney dramatizes the plight of a woman, blind since she was ten months old, who has the chance to regain her sight. As her well-meaning and dilettantish husband asks her ophthalmologist, "She has nothing to lose, has she? What has she to lose?" As the play unfolds, the answer is, it turns out, quite a lot.

Revisiting Ballybeg in County Donegal, the fictional town (derived from the Irish words meaning "little town") in which Molly Sweeney and most of Friel's plays are set, is a bittersweet occasion. Not unlike Horton Foote's Harrison, Texas, the denizens of Ballybeg are unassuming, and they generally lead lives of both quiet desperation and chronic desolation. Their stories are haunting in their simplicity and poignant in their familiarity.

In an introductory note, Friel wrote that he was inspired by Oliver Sacks's case history "To See and Not See," which is about a blind man who was given his sight back after forty-five years. In Friel's play, Molly (Pamela Sabaugh) is forty-one years old and works as a masseuse in a health club. The profession is the perfect job for a woman who experiences the world primarily through touch. Contrary to what people may think, though, she is content in her blindness and does not want pity. "How could I have told those other doctors," she asks pleadingly, "how much pleasure my world offered me?"

Her husband Frank (Tommy Schrider) is a pseudo-intellectual and wannabe entrepreneur. He moves from one half-baked scheme to the next often creating havoc in the process. For example, he describes (quite hilariously) a former career in the cheese business in which he imported Iranian goats for their supposedly prodigious milk supply. Unfortunately, the goats could not adapt to Irish winters nor to the time difference. Now unemployed, Molly's blindness becomes "his latest cause," and as the doctor explains, "it would absorb him just as long as his passion lasted."

Mr. Rice (Paul O'Brien) is the ophthalmologist, who knows that restoring Molly's sight could pose great psychological risks for her. She will, for instance, be inundated with new sensory perceptions, and she will have to learn how to see the world. Like Frank, though, he pursues the cause for his own personal gain. Years before, his wife left him and married one of his former colleagues. He is presently a raging alcoholic with a moribund career, and Molly represents a chance to live up to his youthful promise and longed-for scientific glory. Molly's fate, therefore, is put in the hands of two men, who are motivated by their own moral blindness.

Because the characters never interact directly, delivering their monologues in solitary pools of light on the stage (effectively designed in this production by Anshuman Bhatia), Molly Sweeney can be a difficult play to watch. Running almost two and one-half hours, it requires a good deal of concentration from the audience, but the rewards can be considerable. The Keen Company's revival directed by Jonathan Silverstein makes a persuasive case for a work that many critics have said succeeds more effectively as a book than as a play.

The cast does not have the star power of the 1996 New York premiere, which included the Friel-regular Catherine Byrne as Molly, Jason Robards as Mr. Rice, and Alfred Molina as Frank. Yet, the actors in the current production all give affecting and strong performances. Sabaugh is especially good in finding the poetry in Molly's view of the world. Even though the two men intent on saving her use her as a pawn, as Molly, Sabaugh conveys a sense of fierce independence and fiery intelligence.

Schrider is appropriately smug as Frank, intellectually preening while spouting bits of random research he accumulates. His character is destructively irresponsible, but there is some charm in his pompousness especially in the first part of the play. As the doctor, O'Brien lets slip hints of despair that make him both pathetic and sympathetic. As a trio, the actors perform in excellent harmony.

With minimalist visual and aural design by Steven Kemp (scenery), Jennifer Paar (costumes), and Fan Zhang (sound design), Molly Sweeney demonstrates the power of language to make one see.

Molly Sweeney
Through November 16
Theatre Row - Theatre Five, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge