If I say that Irish Theatre of Chicago’s new production of Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney is an absolutely beautiful one, someone is going to wonder what the heck I’m talking about. For starters, this is a play that takes place on an abstract, amorphous gray set (courtesy of Jessie Baldinger) upon which the show’s three characters, who never interact, speak in a series of overlapping monologues. How could this possibly be described as “beautiful”? Yet I will stand by my statement: this play is beautiful in the way that it drives us to the core of Friel’s characters and lovely language as well as in the ironic way it depicts the main character, who is blind, as the only one who can actually “see.”
The sense of sight looms large in this play about a woman, blind from the age of ten months, whose new husband—an unemployed man whose love of reading makes him the kind of autodidact that you see frequently online, certain that they have found something more significant and true than anything any expert says—talks both her and a reluctant disgraced ophthalmologist into a surgery that may restore sight and make her life oh so much better because…seeing. Neither man thinks to ask whether seeing is in any way important to her or to her happiness. If they did, they might notice that Molly is an amazingly well-adjusted, almost preternaturally happy person who spreads her warmth and happiness to everyone she knows. When both of them—but notably not Molly herself—argue that she has nothing to lose, it is instantly clear that they don’t get it. “Seeing is not understanding,” we are told, and these self-important men—one who desperately wants to restore the good opinion of his peers and the other who believes he knows better than his wife what she needs—prove the point again and again.
Director Siiri Scott guides the highly internalized structure of this monologue play with great care and attention to the often misguided beliefs of its characters. Each of them is extremely clear about who they are and how they see themselves, and Scott adds nothing overt to indicate her own opinions…but that wonderful gray blob of a set, so beautifully lit by Smooch Medina, is so purposeful a recreation of the world as the newly “sighted” Molly perceives it that it is hard not to understand her internal conflict and the way she has become a victim of these two, both of whom tell themselves they are doing what is best for her.
Molly is played by Carolyn Kruse, who uses physical stance, facial expression, wandering hands, and unfocused eyes to get the blindness across in a natural, unobtrusive way. What we glean immediately, and every time she speaks, is the fact that her blindness, far from the impediment to happiness that sighted people might believe, is not holding her back at all. She is an effusive, ebullient, joyful soul. She “sees” with her other senses. She can distinguish flowers from each other by touch and smell even if she cannot precisely know what they look like…though in actuality her senses do compensate her vision to the extent that, when she finally can sort of see, she can almost immediately tell which color is which. It is in this phase, though, when the doctor has deemed the operation a “success,” that Kruse (though not her character) really shines. As Molly slowly realizes that “seeing is not understanding,” she retreats further and further into herself, losing friends as her sanity seems to slip away. Kruse, who is so wonderful playing the exuberant Molly, takes herself to opposite extremes to give us the result of all of this undesired manipulation.
As Mr. Rice, the disgraced, divorced, broken, alcoholic ophthalmologist, Robert Kauzlaric at first comes off as extremely distant. He lives within himself, befitting someone who has fallen so far from the lofty expectations he once had. Gradually, though, he warms to Molly as he begins to convince himself that, yes, maybe he really can do this thing that has been accomplished only twenty times in recorded history. From scene to scene, Kauzlaric allows us to witness the possibilities opening within him, surging despite his own cautionary experiences, and taking over. It’s easy to comprehend why he lets it happen: hope is tantalizing to someone on the bottom, and it is Rice, not Molly, who has “nothing to lose” here.
Molly’s new husband, know-it-all Frank (Matthew Isler), has enough of the blarney about him that he is actually able to convince himself that he knows best. (In this way, he resembles a lot of contemporary politicians and pundits.) Although Rice finds him utterly annoying, he does manage to convince the doctor to do what he wants, just as he has convinced himself that it will be the best thing for Molly. This is a character that might have been difficult to like, but Isley endows him with a humanity that helps us to understand why Molly finds him interesting and allows his dream to overtake her life.
At some point, it becomes clear to the audience members that the three characters’ intertwining monologues have diverged: details and events no longer line up, and it becomes impossible to know whose version of reality—if any of them—is the truth. When we can no longer trust our senses, Friel’s play twists in on itself to show that understanding and reality are filtered through each person’s mind…and that this has nothing at all to do with seeing.
Molly Sweeney is playing at Chopin Theatre through May 8. Tickets are available at https://www.irishtheatre.org.