As most of you must know by now, Brian Friel’s Faith Healer marks quite a few firsts. It’s the first time Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling has cast himself in a title role, the first time he has both directed and acted in a Guthrie play, and the first time he has dusted off his acting chops in more than twenty years.
The obvious question everyone wants answered is whether Dowling is any good? And the answer is yes, he does a fine job in his role as Francis Hardy, a faith healer who spent his life traveling from village to village in Scotland and Wales, occasionally performing minor miracles for sufferers of various ailments and disabilities. However, in pairing himself with Sally Wingert and Raye Birk, two of the Guthrie’s most dynamic actors, Dowling has set the bar for himself extraordinarily high. And by the time Sally Wingert is half-way through her monologue, it honestly doesn’t matter how effective Dowling’s turn onstage was. (The play is told in four long monologues—the opening one by Francis Hardy (Dowling), the second by Gracie, Hardy’s wife (Wingert), the third by Teddy, Frank’s manager (Birk), and the closing one by Frank again.) The way this play works, Dowling tees it up, Wingert cocks the bat, and Birk hits it out of the park.
Such monologue plays are difficult to pull off because very little of the action happens onstage; most everything happens in the audience’s imagination. The actor is just a storyteller, and the strength of the thing rests on the power of the tale, the music of the language, and the skill of the teller. Each character recounts the same key episodes in their twenty-year association together, but each has a slightly different interpretation of events. As Frank Hardy, Dowling has the hardest job, since he must set the stage for the stories to come.
The tale they all tell involves Frank’s strange “gift” as a healer, the circumstances surrounding Gracie’s stillborn baby, and a chain of events that eventually leads to Frank’s murder and Gracie’s suicide. As skilled as they are, the monologues by Dowling and Wingert are so melancholy and depressing that they can be a bit tedious, but the payoff comes when Raye Birk takes the stage as Teddy, who recounts several humorous episodes of his days as a manager, including one about a whippet (yes, a dog) that could play the bagpipes. Teddy is a flamboyant character who wears a red velvet housecoat and bowtie and loves exclaiming the word “fantastic!” Having already heard two different versions of the events Teddy is discussing, including two different assessments of his own role in those events, Teddy’s revisions are hilarious—and as he gets to the sadder parts of his tale, the humor makes them that much more poignant.
The beauty of this play resides primarily in the evocative lyricism of the language and the ability of each actor to paint the same basic chain of events with a completely different brush. The play is performed in the McGuire Proscenium, but it is such an intimate play that the Dowling Studio would probably have been a more effective space. It is also an “actor’s” play, in that on any given night Frank Hardy never knows if he will be able to “perform” a miracle, which is the same situation all artists face, whether they are an actor facing a new audience each night, a painter facing a blank piece of canvas—or, it must be said, an artistic director planning a season of plays. Kudos to Dowling for accepting the challenge, and for proving that more than mere faith is behind his success at the helm of the Guthrie. There’s a little skill involved too.
Faith Healer continues at the Guthrie Theater through Dec. 6.