As the title character played by Ralph Fiennes in Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer” intones the names of dying Welsh villages in the opening monologue, he speaks of “the mesmerism, the sedation of the incantation.” Those place names become a hypnotic refrain for all three characters in this haunting drama about art and memory, life and death. In Jonathan Kent’s illuminating production, the dark sorcery of language, of recitation and interpretation, powers a challenging play that stubbornly withholds its revelations as it explores the infinite nuances of truth and fabrication.
Friel’s play premiered on Broadway in 1979 in a poorly received production starring James Mason that ran a mere 20 performances. Structured as four consecutive monologues from three characters who at no time share the stage, this “Rashomon”-style feat of complex storytelling examines overlapping events from conflicting perspectives. While that approach was audacious for its time, nontraditional narrative has since become more common in mainstream theater. But “Faith Healer” still requires its audience to work — and is all the more enthralling for it.
Kent is working here in a richly theatrical idiom that enhances the drama’s intricate layers. His embrace of magic and artifice is apparent in the eerie image that sweeps the stage between monologues, of a single gnarled tree in a lonely country landscape, underscored by wind and whispering voices and projected across a moving white curtain.
In a production designed with meticulous precision, the three characters appear to be conjured by lighting illusionist Mark Henderson out of brooding darkness, hovering between flesh and spirit.
And Kent artfully harnesses the three distinct acting styles of the excellent cast to mirror Friel’s multiple takes on the same events. In addition to the treacherous waters of memory, the playwright reflects with searching introspection on the creative process, on the making of art as a transformative release but also as a potential snare plagued by uncertainties of chance, weight and trustworthiness.
“A craft without an apprenticeship, a ministry without responsibility, a vocation without a ministry,” is how the title character describes his profession.
Self-doubt is disturbingly evident in Frank Hardy (Fiennes), the eponymous Irishman who travels the back roads of Wales and Scotland, hawking his all-purpose miracles to a dwindling public. “Am I endowed with a unique and awesome gift?” Frank asks. “Am I a con man?” Those questions are bounced back and forth by the faith healer; his long-suffering wife (or is she merely his lover?), Grace (Cherry Jones); and his loquacious Cockney manager, Teddy (Ian McDiarmid).
The names of the towns are the same for each of the three characters, but their accounts of the events that took place in them vary wildly. The task of wading through the murky depths of memory to separate lies from truth fuels the play’s unsettling suspense. The deepest scars clearly have been left by Grace’s stillborn child, buried by the side of a road in northernmost Scotland, and by the trio’s return to Ireland years later to Friel’s mythical Donegal village of Ballybeg, where the doomed Frank’s gifts were tested by the locals in a pub.
Fiennes is given the tough job of re-creating a role forever associated with Donal McCann’s reportedly unforgettable interpretation. In the opening monologue, in particular, the actor’s work feels somewhat underpowered. He looks gaunt and unshaven in a shabby suit, and while his intelligence and quiet charisma are never in doubt, the character remains distant, dreamily absent at times and knowingly enigmatic at others. Fiennes’ cool approach perhaps leaves us too much time to consider his impressive technique. There’s nothing superfluous in the performance: Every gesture, expression, pause and inflection is carefully controlled.
It’s in the surprising ripple effect that continues later, through Grace and Teddy’s testimonies and in his own commanding final monologue, that Fiennes’ characterization assumes the vivid shape of a man whose cruelty and selfishness are matched by his personal torment.
While Jones has not mastered the accent of an Irishwoman — even one long absent from her home — her work is powerful and affecting. The daughter of a sententious judge, Grace is a soul unable to find rest; she both loves and despises Frank but is passionately loyal to him. “God, he was such a twisted man,” she says. “With such a talent for hurting.”
In her painful endurance of the wounds of exclusion, of Frank’s hubris and self-absorption, the character conveys in almost shockingly naked terms a suggestion of Friel’s own contemplation of the difficulty of living with an artist.
Shifting gears once again from Fiennes’ microscopically detailed intensity and Jones’ raw emotionalism, McDiarmid gives the production’s most astonishing perf, inhabiting colorful raconteur Teddy with more than a hint of Archie Rice. Looking elegantly tatty in his dusty red velvet tux, the winking vaudevillian showman cheerfully gulps beer after beer while reminiscing about his entrepreneurial past, proudly celebrating the talents of Miss Mulato and her Pigeons or Rob Roy, the bagpipe-playing whippet. Like his endorsement of those dubious novelty acts, Teddy seems unconcerned whether Frank’s gift is chicanery or genius.
McDiarmid creates a tragicomic figure whose convivially conversational manner makes the cracks in his composure cut deeper. Failing to abide by his own rule of “strictly business,” Teddy’s love of Frank and Grace, his unrewarded devotion, loss and sorrow are searingly, heartbreakingly rendered.
Ultimately, however, despite the contrasting skills of these fine actors, it’s the melancholy beauty of Friel’s writing and the measured, cumulative lucidity of Kent’s probing production that give this beguiling play its lingering resonance. As Fiennes steps slowly downstage in the final moments, there’s a devastating sense of both a character and a playwright offering themselves up for judgment.