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Faith No More

Brian Friel's Drama of Creation and Conviction Can Cure What Ails You

Ill Will: Nigel Reed plays a faith healer with a manipulative streak.

By John Barry | Posted 11/6/2002

Faith Healer

Brian Friel

Brian Friel's plays frequently tread the line between drama and artistic manifesto. So for unpublished writers who need a little Yeatsian reminder of artists' godlike powers, Faith Healer gives you the rush you crave. You'll go back to your garret thinking of yourself as Christ or the Anti-Christ, whichever you prefer. But if you're an actor, this play could be a real stinker.

Faith Healer is made up of four monologues, each one presenting a separate take on the artistic vocation. Each actor has at least one 30-minute piece; none of them appear onstage together. Putting that under lights and calling it a play without having it turn into four one-act yawners is a high-wire act. But the folks at Rep Stage are up to the challenge. If anyone sends flowers to the dressing room, it should be Friel himself. He didn't make things easy for them, and they delivered.

He doesn't make plot summaries easy either. We're given few indisputable facts to work with. Frank Hardy, faith healer, his wife, Grace, and his impresario, Teddy, have spent more than a decade traveling through tiny Welsh and Scottish villages, promising the crippled and the lame cures for their ailments and addictions. For the most part, he has failed to deliver. Frank (Nigel Reed) acknowledges that freely; in fact, he practically refers to himself as a fraud. People came to the faith healer, Frank says, out of desperation; he remarks dryly that they "defied me to endow them with hopelessness."

What sparks the play, though, is that every once in a long while Frank summons up his powers to actually cure them. How this happens, or even whether it happens, is uncertain. It's clear that Frank has powers over the small audiences that gather in the town halls, pubs, and barns of Scotland and Wales. But neither his wife, his impresario, nor Frank himself seems to be sure whether that power is uniquely creative or just manipulative.

Stories get told, the legend of Frank Hardy builds, the play progresses. Grace (Julie-Ann Elliott) and Teddy (Bruce Nelson) begin giving the audience their separate accounts of Frank Hardy, and Frank offers his own, too. Slowly, the two-bit faith healer begins to appear as a sort of artistic visionary with both creative and destructive powers. In the process, Elliott, Reed, and Nelson manage to create characters who are so emotionally entangled that neither time nor distance can stop them from interacting with each other. The intensity of their relationships is so combustible that at points it would seem impossible to put them all on one stage.

The audience has to stay on its toes. As these characters talk about one another, or themselves, subtle transformations occur. Frank rambles on about his life on the road; but we become increasingly aware of his insidious, manipulative powers over others. Grace's monologue seems a bit overwrought with the tortures of the wifely predicament; but at intervals we get glimpses of a woman who is not just a victim of Frank's machinations but also an accomplice. The impresario, Teddy, starts out describing Frank with detached, polished tone that's refreshing. But as he downs bottles of beer, his story line becomes increasingly haphazard and convoluted. Finally, it all breaks down: He isn't sure whether Frank is a fraud or a genius, but he's obsessed with him.

Friel leaves it to you to decide what the links are between a faith healer and the artist figure. The Christ parallels, the links between faith and chance, and the notion of creating others through fiction will give the audience plenty to think about. It's not easy to know where Brian Friel is trying to lead us; since he is a playwright who devotes a lot of his attention to the art of writing, it's tempting to focus on larger questions of the creative process at the expense of the play itself. But an impressive cast and director Kasi Campbell keep it real. In this production, even among isolated characters, the relationships themselves are the message, and the stage is the medium.

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