‘Faith Healer’ excels on strength of acting

We’ve all heard the adage: you can’t judge a book by its cover, and it also holds true that you shouldn’t judge a theatrical production by its first appearance. This past weekend, intimate audiences were treated to a tiny theatrical treasure – Morgan Phillips-Spotts ’09’s Studio Series production of Faith Healer, a stirring work by Irish playwright Brian Friel. Unlike big-budget – albeit impressive – theatre department shows, Faith Healer was outstanding simply because of the quality of the acting and directing. Taking place in the small Directing Studio of the ’62 Center, the show had a set only of simple furniture.

Phillips-Spotts should be applauded for an impressive directing debut with a difficult text to work with. Friel’s play does not follow a traditional theatrical format of dialogue or even a chronology of scenes. Rather it is constituted by four monologues, each over 30 minutes in length, delivered by the play’s three actors.

Faith Healer tells the story of Francis Hardy, a wandering healer who travels through the British Isles with his wife and business manager and performs medical miracles with his supernatural gift. While Hardy might be able to heal the lives of some, his gift works unpredictably. The characters’ explanations of the complex relationship between Hardy and his wife are the most parts of the narrative – Hardy refers to her as his “mistress” in public, both are alcoholics and they are unable to conceive a child together. Due to this nonlinear plotline, the story of Faith Healer isn’t immediately understandable – its exposition unfolds over time, and all of the characters and their memories are proven inaccurate and unreliable by each subsequent monologue.

As the eponymous Hardy, Adam Stoner ’11 delivered one of the best performances of the College’s theatrical season thus far. Speaker of two of these epic monologues, Stoner first sets up the show and then closes it, and the Hardy we see in the first monologue is entirely different in our eyes by the show’s denouement. Stoner deftly handles the emotionally complex role of a pathological liar with convoluted motivations, a character that would be difficult to comprehend even on paper. Stoner’s embodiment of Hardy seemed second nature, down to his accent – which faltered only while singing – and specificity of physicality. His ease and rapport with the audience alternated with a terrifying and exposing vulnerability, such as when the lights switched to a tight spotlight as Hardy muttered names of Welsh cities to soothe his nerves. Stoner’s impressive performance buoyed and united the show, and the play’s final moments are satisfyingly cathartic due to the conviction in his teary eyes and bedraggled face.

Faith Healer was far from a one-man show, however. Clare Malone ’09 as Hardy’s frantic, neurotic wife, Grace, grappled with the play’s most difficult emotional work. Malone’s monologue was taxing for both audience and actor, as she doled out the heavy stories of a toxic marriage and, in one of the play’s most tragic moments, recounted the story of her stillborn child and Hardy’s apparent disinterest in its birth. It is also revealed that the monologue takes place sometime after Hardy’s death, and the rest of the show becomes a mystery surrounding the events occurred leading up to it.

While obviously dealing with heavy subject matter, the mood was lightened before reaching the breaking point through a hilarious and heartfelt performance by Rob Gearity ’11 as Hardy’s business manager, Teddy. Gearity humanized the amusingly drunk opportunist who seemed to capitalize on Hardy’s gift and its burden. He showed a gentler, more lovable side to a character that might otherwise seem strictly self-interested. Gearity easily commanded the show’s biggest laughs as he told ridiculous anecdotes, but he also painted the convincing portrait of a man who laughs into a drink to keep himself from crying. Grappling with this lack of agency was a major struggle for each of the three characters, and it speaks to the strength of each of the three actors to be able to do so without consequently making the play seem heavy or trite.

With such a nontraditional theatrical format, it is a tricky task to keep an audience engaged in two hours of monologues. However, Phillips-Spotts made strong directorial choices that helped to alleviate this difficulty. Each of the three characters interacted with a specific chair and area of the stage, helping to solidify the idea that while they are in close, inseparable proximity in reality, in the world of the production they are separated by space, time and an emotional gulf. Her choice to set up chairs to represent the audience at one of Hardy’s performances was particularly notable, as it mirrored the audience members sitting opposite from them and further engaged us in Hardy’s deluded world.

One of the greatest difficulties of this show – and to solo performance in general – is directing the actor to move in a compelling, motivated way rather than merely pacing or sitting, and Phillips-Spotts capably handled the challenge. With just one actor and in such an intimate space as the Directing Studio, however, some of the specific motions and stage business were more effective than others. Stoner’s nail-cleaning came off as natural and organic due to its casual and intermittent nature, but Malone’s constant hand-wringing for nearly her entire monologue, while reflective of her inner turmoil, eventually seemed contrived.

Overall, I was engrossed and amazed in Friel’s beautifully written piece and the actors’ tirelessly convincing performances. Hopefully, the ’62 Center’s Studio Series will continue to support student directors and actors in the future, as the format certainly lends itself to a personal and intense theatrical experience.