Celtic Twilight

Brian Friel's dramas always reveal as much or more in their textures and atmospheres, in their words and the way they hang together, as they do in the specifics of their plots. This is true in his most famous piece, the Tony Award-winning Dancing at Lughnasa, but it was never more true than in The Faith Healer, from 1979. As written by Friel and especially as directed by Kim St. Leon, The Faith Healer is a masterfully crafted assemblage of signs, symbols, and portents that trace the shape of a story that communicates forcefully, through the sheer evocative power of language but that remains largely untold. It's a relic, its three characters warped and ripped apart by forces that acted and departed long before anyone took a seat in the Inside Out Theatre.

The play is composed of four monologues, each more jarring than the last — and the first is very, very jarring. In it, we are introduced to Frank Hardy, as played by Stephen J. Anthony. Hardy's an Irish faith healer, an alcoholic whose 20-year-plus career on the road has ruined him. Doubting his own powers — which, one comes to believe, were entirely genuine if unreliable — and defeated by a diffuse resentment he can neither banish nor explain, his story, we know, is over before he begins telling it. Anthony's portrait is one of total resignation, shot through with brief flashes of sweetness so sad and soft and human that one can understand exactly what kind of man he was before he was this lost and beaten thing.

Next we meet Frank's mistress, Grace. She gave up a privileged life as the daughter of a magistrate, as well as her own incipient legal career, to join Hardy on the road decades ago. Like everyone in this play, she's a derelict, with nothing left to offer but memories and moans. She loved, and loves, Hardy deeply, but he ruined her life, and she knows it. The terrible contradictions of her predicament are toxic, and actress Sandra Ives seems poisoned by them, a creature of such profound anguish that you wonder how she'll ever make it through the performance.

Ken Clement's turn as Ted, Frank Hardy's sweet, cockney manager (and Clement's cockney is cockney — "I'll tell yew free fings, dear awt, free fings!"), has been called by another critic "one of the best performances of several seasons." That's about right. After an hour of engaging but unceasing despair, Clement's appearance is a relief. Within seconds, he has the audience exploding with laughter as he spins a yarn about a bagpipe-playing whippet. When he finally begins telling the story of Frank and Grace and the years he spent with them, the sadness at the heart of the story and its tragic end is at first sublimated beneath Ted's lifelong professional habit of upbeat showbiz spin. When it detonates, it hurts like hell: If you wondered whether Ives had the fortitude to stick out her performance, Clement makes the audience ask the same question of itself.

Save for Grace, it is never made clear what's become of these people. Suspicions develop, hints are given, but nothing is solidified. Frank might be telling his story from purgatory, from a purgatorial jail, from a retirement home, from an abandoned barn where he once healed a lame farmer. The same goes for Teddy. Wherever they are, they are frozen; whatever they might do, they cannot change what they have done. And the fated trajectories of their own sad histories are all that seem to matter. As they recount the stories of their long and star-crossed lives together, they summon up long-ago nights in small Welsh and Scottish towns the way Vietnam vets reference battles like Khe San and Da Nang. They repeat the names of those towns, the sites of their triumphs and failures, like incantations — low, under the breath, one after another, giving the impression of desperate old women hunched over their rosaries, or swaying in an ancient chapel, reciting the stations of the cross.

Some of the towns become talismans, their names and the memories of what happened there called up over and over again in the vain hope of resolution. A dozen healed here; a dead baby hastily buried in a town called Kiln Loch-Burvee; a strange and dangerous night in the Irish village of Ballybeg (from "Baile beag," Gaelic for "small town," and a recurring locale in Brian Friel's plays). References to these places are tripped over, seized upon, like the whole production is trying to expel a bone from its throat. The events are hammered at obsessively, and though the characters offer wildly differing accounts of what came to pass in those places, the same themes and motifs recur no matter who does the talking. And always, inevitably, the three players mention the song that Teddy played before Hardy's every engagement, "The Way You Look Tonight." It is the only record he owned during the trio's death march across The British Isles, and as Frank, Grace and Teddy recount their stories, the song, sounding just as ancient and decrepit as any crumbling Celtic hamlet, issues softly from Teddy's record player: Some day, when I'm awfully low/When the world is cold/I will feel a glow just thinking of you/And the way you look tonight.

The song was written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields for Swing Time, maybe the last great film of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers partnership. Swing Time was made in 1936, and stars Astaire as a dancer who falls in love with Rogers, just as he's about to marry another woman. The movie is a paean to romanticism —the prosaic romanticism of starry-eyed new love and submission to the wild and irrational currents of human feeling. In Swing Time, the song appears during two major scenes. In the first, it is played jubilantly, almost off-handedly, with Fred Astaire seated at the piano while Ginger Rogers does her hair. It's a sweet gesture. Later, it's heavier. When the song appears suddenly on the heels of "Never Gonna Dance," Astaire and Rogers know that their affair is doomed, and the song is no longer a gesture at all: It is an exact catalogue of what the pair will be left with, when the music stops and at last they part ways.

In a way, The Faith Healer is a portrait of that same kind of pairing, extrapolated through many more years and hardships than the writers of Swing Time ever had to think about. Frank and Grace held on to a memory of a night, or of a thousand nights, when whole new lives of nobility and love seemed within reach or closer, before the marks went home and the magic dissipated. Rather than providing sustenance, the memories turned vampiric, draining every subsequent night of value and cheapening every moment that failed to live up to the half-articulated promise of some small healing in some tiny, anonymous town. In their sweetest memories of each other, Francis, Grace, and Teddy look like angels. Holding themselves to that standard — which may have only been the product of good booze and chicanery anyway — they withered, and retreated from their own betrayals. The last time the record player coughs to life and summons up "The Way You Look Tonight," they look nothing like angels. They look like corpses.

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Brandon K. Thorp