“Molly Sweeney,” Brian Friel’s brooding meditation on sight and blindness, loss and redemption, is as beautifully composed as it is acted on the stage of the Roundabout Theater Co.’s new Laura Pels Theater. Even at an overlong two hours and 35 minutes, this story, viewed from three distinct perspectives, captivates with its deceptively simple plot and the unfailing grace of its performers.
First, the cast. Catherine Byrne,known to Broadway audiences for her roles in Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” and “Wonderful Tennessee,” gives the play its foundation with her delicately nuanced performance as the title character, a 41 -year-old woman blind since infancy and about to regain her sight through a new operation.
Jason Robards’ turn as the alcoholic, has-been surgeon who offers vision contains not a single false moment, and British actor Alfred Molina keeps up with this fine company as Molly’s husband, a pseudo-intellectual dilettante who reduces his wife to the latest in a series of failed pet projects.
The play’s structure, nearly identical to Friel’s “The Faith Healer,” couldn’t be less ornamented. In alternating monologues, the three characters tell the story of Molly’s operation — the first act details the events leading up to the fateful procedure, the second recounting her physical, if not psychological, recovery. But in the guise of case history, Friel has penned three achingly poignant character studies, each a well-rounded story in itself.
At the center of the trio is Molly, an intelligent, independent woman who was taught by her father to “see” with her ears and hands, and who has learned not only to live with her “disadvantage,” but to flourish. She relishes the tactile pleasure of swimming, and delights in the smells of her garden in ways she’s convinced sighted people could never achieve. She agrees to the operation as much for her husband as for herself.
The husband, Frank, has bounced through life from one silly get-rich-quick scheme and quirky obsession to the next. Described as having the “indiscriminate enthusiasm of the self-taught,” Frank replaces his study of Iranian goat farming and Philosophy 101 with his new wife. “Her blindness,” says the doctor presciently, “was his latest cause, and it would absorb him as long as his passion lasted.”
The doctor, of course, has a story of his own. Once considered one of the most brilliant eye surgeons in the world, Mr. (not, for whatever reason, Dr.) Rice landed in Friel’s fictional Irish hamlet of Ballybeg after career-destroying years of drinking and depression sparked by a long-ago romantic betrayal.
Molly’s husband might view the operation as a cause, but the doctor has his own use for the woman: She is his redemption, his last chance to restore his once-dazzling reputation.
If the two male characters appear, in description, as Machiavellian manipulators, in performance they seem anything but. Both are entranced by the sightless woman, yet each is compelled to “see” her situation from his own blinkered perspective.
The ultimate tragedy of the story — or at least what two of the characters perceive as tragedy — comes not from medical failure but from attempting to impose one’s world on someone else.
Molly’s sight is regained, but overwhelmed by the barrage of images from her strange new universe, she retreats into a type of madness, a “borderline country ,” she calls it, wherein she’s unable — or unwilling — to distinguish reality from fantasy. “Why should I question any of it anymore?” she asks, finally at ease.
Laced with Friel’s customarily rich language, “Molly Sweeney” provides the playwright with a forum to explore the gray areas between perception and reality , seeing and understanding, failure and success. The distinctions reveal themselves to be as blurry as Molly’s restored sight.
Friel’s direction is straightforward: Each character, by turns, addresses the audience directly, never interacting with the others, who sit in straight-backed chairson Joe Vanek’s spare set (a lovely, vaguely impressionistic backdrop in watercolor framing the actors).
The approach keeps the focus on the words and the actors speaking them, and if it (combined with the unapologetically talky nature of the piece) wears thin somewhere near the two-hour mark, the intelligence and compassion of “Molly Sweeney” survives intact.