There’s very little talk of religion in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. That’s an interesting omission, considering that the monologue-driven play concerns an Irish layer-on of hands who works divine wonders, and who may meet a fate that echoes Christ’s passion. There’s more discussion of showbiz and touring an act through backwoods Wales and Scotland than whether spontaneous healing is divine or anti-psychosomatic. The difference between theater and church, between a miracle and a sham, Friel suggests, is mere faith. He limns this provocative notion throughout this engrossing 1979 work.
Here’s a play that rewards close listening and an active imagination. Written as four long solo speeches (each clocking in at about 30 minutes each), the text constantly tests your remembrance of what information came before. In the first monologue, Frank Hardy (Ralph Fiennes, center photo), the titular miracle worker, says that his wife, Grace (Cherry Jones, left), hails from the Yorkshire region of England. But when Grace takes the stage, pounding whiskey and chain-smoking, she makes it clear that she, like Frank, is Irish. (Jones’s performance, it must be noted, doesn’t help matters: She may possess the most Midwestern-sounding Irish accent in Emerald Isle history.)
Director Jonathan Kent’s ghostly revival unfolds in a vast, shadowy room that could be a town hall or some drafty waiting room in the afterlife. The four solo speeches provide subjective glimpses of Frank, a drunken, shabby liar who nonetheless has an inexplicable talent for curing the sick. The slightly febrile Fiennes, who always walks the line between holy fool and pervert, swims with furtive intensity in Friel’s well-turned, novelistic
phrases. His suit rumpled with use, his tie loosened, his cheek hollow and unshaven, Fiennes delivers a riveting portrayal as a man blessed and cursed with an inexplicable gift. The three-way analogy between crooks, saints and artists is clear but not oppressively underscored.
Offering comic relief and unexpected stabs of sorrow, Ian McDiarmid gives his side of the story as Frank’s oleaginous Cockney manager, Teddy. McDiarmid masterfully holds the stage with the evening’s lightest and most humorous character, guzzling bottle after bottle of beer and sporting a ridiculously bright orange comb-over. Surprisingly, the weak link here is Jones as Frank’s miserable but loyal wife. The normally powerful actress takes a strident, too-American approach to her lines, hammering out raw emotions that a U.K. performer might dissect more delicately and dryly. In Jones’s last, much more effective stage role, as Sister Aloysius in Doubt, the granite-willed performer showed a restraint that she abandons here.
Ultimately, though, the weird and brutal beauty of Friel’s play comes through, a testament to theater’s power to simultaneously hurt and heal. And, if nothing else, the spooky final moments in Fiennes’s last monologue should sear its potent images on the brain with the mysterious grandeur of the best Christian iconography.
David Cote is the theater editor of Time Out New York and a contributing critic on NY1’s On Stage.