17 years on, acting trio triumphantly returns to ‘Faith Healer’
It was 17 years ago when I first watched Brad Armacost, Lia Mortensen and Si Osborne rip the stuffings out of “Faith Healer,” Irish playwright Brian Friel’s devastating anatomy of love, loyalty, self-doubt and ruin as played out by three people unable to live with each other, unable to live without each other, and caught up for years in what was a far more intense and meaningful situation than that pop term “co-dependence” could ever suggest. And despite the thousands of productions I’ve seen in the interim, that little storefront masterpiece never left my mind.
Now, the same three actors, as well as their original director, J.R. Sullian, have reunited for a reprise of the show that stands as a landmark in Chicago theater for all who saw it. And the miracle is that the intervening years have only burnished these actors’ fevered portrayals.
Of course, it is the scorching beauty and almost unbearable ache of Friel’s storytelling and language that is the golden foundation of this production. Few writers of any time or place possess his piercing eloquence, emotional insight, dark humor and gift for the cutting detail that captures individual character. He is a master.
“Faith Healer” unspools in an unusual form, with four monologues supplying a Rashomon-like, multi-perspective view of Francis Hardy (Osborne), the faith healer of the title; Grace (Mortensen), his “mistress/wife,” and Teddy (Armacost), his manager. But as each monologue unfolds, the pieces begin to fit perfectly. And if the overall feeling is one of an ever-tightening noose — well, that is exactly the intention.
Francis Hardy, in long exile from his poor Irish roots, discovered somewhere along the line that he had a gift for the laying on of hands. The torment was that he never quite believed in his own “talent” and was not so sure that Grace’s father, a judge in all ways, was wrong when he called the man she ran off off with a charlatan. To be sure, Francis had demons. But Grace fell hard and forever for him, and despite his neglect, emotional abuse and all the rest, she never betrayed him, which instilled a level of guilt that was unbearable.
And then there was Teddy, the Cockney “impresario” infatuated with show business, bedazzled by Francis and in silent awe of Grace. It was Teddy who, for years, drove the battered van that took the three of them through impoverished Welsh and Scottish towns where “the fantastic” Francis plied his trade — knowingly offering hope to the hopeless for “one night only.”
One indication of the power of the writing and acting here is the way characters never seen on stage burst to life. Consider Osborne’s brilliant rendering of his brief, riveting and only conversation with Grace’s mother, or Mortensen’s heartbreaking encounter with her elderly father, or Armacost’s memory of a performing whippet, and the woman who communicated with pigeons. And then there is the explanation of his tormented love for both Francis and Grace, and his place in the triangulated relationship. Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic.