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Twist of Faith

Three Performers Captivate In This Stunning, Minimal Production

WILD PALMS: Marc Horwitz (center) ponders his gift and his curse.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/1/2006

Faith Healer

By Brian Friel

At the Performance Workshop Theatre through Dec. 10

Brian Friel's Faith Healer opened at the Performance Workshop Theatre on a chilly, rainy Friday night with only 10 people in the seats at Federal Hill's tiny basement theater. The play itself was oddly structured, consisting solely of four monologues, each delivered directly to the audience with no other actors onstage and minimal props. The circumstances seem unlikely to produce one of the most extraordinary evenings of Baltimore theater this writer has ever seen--but that's just what happened.

One of the show's few props is a poster, brown with age, that almost floats at the rear of the stage. It reads: the fantastic francis hardy, faith healer, one night only. The show opens with Frank Hardy himself--played with thinning hair and a nervous restlessness by Marc Horwitz--standing alone on the half-lit stage. Wearing a gray suit and overcoat, he recites strange words in a husky, hypnotic drone: "Aberarder, Aberayron, Llangranog, Llangurig . . . "

These, it turns out, are the names of the Welsh and Scottish towns where he plied his faith-healing show between 1936 and 1956. Before each show, he would recite that list of names to quiet his nerves and to quell the nagging questions. Those questions "began modestly enough with the pompous struttings of a young man," Frank concedes. "`Am I endowed with a unique and awesome gift?' My God, yes, I'm afraid so. And I suppose the other extreme was, `Am I a con man?' Which, of course, was nonsense. And between those absurd exaggerations the possibilities were legion. Was it all chance? Or skill? Or illusion? Or delusion?"

Frank recalls his endless tours with his manager Teddy and his mistress Grace, how they would set up in a church hall or community center in a rural village. Grace would collect admission in a tin box at the door; Teddy would introduce the show in his London cockney accent, and Frank would move among the consumptive and lame to a scratchy recording of Fred Astaire singing "The Way You Look Tonight." Nine times out of 10 nothing would happen, but on that 10th time, Frank would place his hands on some poor farmer, and the cough would disappear or a bone would suddenly bear weight again.

Such a moment is so thrilling, so satisfying, that it makes you desperate to taste it again. It makes you willing to put up with the other nine times, to put up with riding in the chairless rear of an uninsured van. It makes your impoverished manager and your much-abused mistress willing to put up with you just for a vicarious share of that thrill.

It all started to go downhill, of course, when he got news in Kinlochbervie, Scotland, that his mother had died. And then there was that ill-fated night in Ballybeg, Ireland.

After a brief blackout, the stage belongs to Grace (Katherine Lyons), sitting in a small London flat, with an ashtray full of cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey on the table beside her. She insists that her doctor is helping her pull her life together, 12 months after the Ballybeg incident, but there is reason to doubt her. Her thick mane of black curls is unbrushed; she sprawls in her green armchair with her knees apart, and she gulps whiskey like water. In an astonishing performance, actress Katherine Lyons makes it clear just how close to the precipice Grace is.

As she describes the same events as Frank, we notice the discrepancies, large and small, between his account and hers. She wasn't his mistress, she claims; she was his legally married wife. Nor was she his docile, loyal companion; she even left him once after a particularly brutal fight. There was a death associated with Kinlochbervie, but it wasn't Frank's mother who died.

Because Friel's writing is so sharp and because Horwitz's monologue is so vivid, Frank's words linger in the ear and bump up against Grace's equally sharp, equally vivid monologue. And something remarkable happens: The monologues become a dialogue--you get a strong impression of Frank and Grace arguing fiercely over what really happened. And that illusion is as thrilling as any faith healing.

After intermission, the lights come up again, this time on Teddy (Ben Lovell), sitting in his London apartment, listening to a bulky, plastic phonograph and downing one beer after another. Played by the bald, round, and jovial Lovell in a bow tie and maroon velvet smoking jacket, Teddy emits the kind of twinkly charm that could make an audience believe that the sour, self-doubting Frank Hardy really was a fantastic faith healer.

Once again we hear a version of the trio's 20 years on the road together; once again discrepancies pop up; once again we get the illusion of a monologue turning into a dialogue, this time with three parties wrangling over the facts and their interpretation. We also hear Teddy's philosophy about show business, faith healing, and, by extension, art itself. Because his examples are as likely to include Rob Roy, the bagpipe-playing dog, as Laurence Olivier, his philosophy can be very funny. But it's often truer than even Teddy suspects.

There's another blackout, and Frank returns to the stage alone. By this time, there have been so many hints about Ballybeg that we're dying to know just what happened. We do find out, but two bigger questions also beg to be answered: If you are blessed and/or cursed with an unusual, unreliable talent, how do you live with yourself? And how do those around you--lovers or friends--live with you? Neither the author nor the director, Marlyn Robinson, provides an easy answer, but the questions burrow in so deeply that you can't leave them behind when you depart the theater.

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