Brian Friel’s play, Faith Healer, is not about healing. In fact, the three characters succumb to their demons and become hopeless alcoholics. But in spite of the depressing story line, the Shaw’s production is worth seeing because of the powerful skill of the actors, the lyrical, lilting words and the pure electrical charge coming from the stage. A story about addictions is not easy to carry off. It takes a special audience member to hold on through three hours of ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’.
But the crowds keep coming back because obsessions are what the theatre is made of: the so called faith healer Frank’s (Jim Mezon) compulsion to make people well when he can’t even heal himself; his wife Grace’s (Corrine Koslo) impulse to capture the spark that motivates her husband even if it will destroy her; manager Teddy’s (Peter Krantz) fatal attraction to a woman he can’t have and a man who may be losing his “gift.”
This is Sartre’s “No Exit” on a grand scale and with a fundamentally different kind of structure. One of the primary rules of the theatre is “show don’t tell.” But here there is no showing—even the stage is stark—the sound and music restrained. Storytelling carries the drama, and even then, the plot line is under question. The characters often contradict each other’s narratives in long monologues spoken one after the other—Frank, then Grace, Teddy and then Frank again.
All of the actors are compelling—Mezon as the insecure victim of a force he doesn’t understand, Koslo as the tortured fly draw to Mezon’s light, and Krantz as the hopeless romantic, endlessly playing “Just the Way you Look Tonight” on the phonograph.
As elusive as faith, is the thread which holds the whole thing together. Never once is the name of God mentioned or the source of Frank’s off an on strength. All three characters agree that people have been healed when Frank touched them—but they don’t know how or why. And none of them appear to “believe” in anything more than in Frank’s charisma. They refer to his services as “performances” and to his profession as “artist.”
All of them are struggling to find meaning, as they eke out a living day by day on an endless road trip through Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Is it faith itself they lack as they drown their sorrows in booze and their self-confidence wanes?
Although the audience can guess the inevitable end of Frank’s story, the journey to get there is fascinating. Yes, Friel could have used an editor, and the play could easily clipped back by half an hour, but to see the production is like getting on a speeding train and not being able to get off. It’s spellbinding and electrifying.
Faith Healer is playing at the Royal George Theatre until Oct. 6th.