'Faith Healer:' Unsettling Masterpiece

In this photo provided by Barlow-Hartman, Ralph Fiennes stars in a revival of Brian Friel's "Faith Healer," opening May 4, 2006, now playing at Broadway's Booth Theatre.
AP/Barlow-Hartman/Anthony Woods
Funny thing, memory. Not the same thing as the truth, of course, but often more compelling, particularly when you get different versions of the same tale.

And memory, in all its glorious variations, is at the center of "Faith Healer," Brian Friel's haunting, unsettling masterpiece of a play, which was revived Thursday at Broadway's Booth Theatre.

Aided by three formidable performers — Ralph Fiennes, Cherry Jones and Ian McDiarmid — Friel, in a series of pungent monologues, tells the tale of Frank Hardy, a charismatic charlatan of the first rank.

The Irish playwright, author of such hits as "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" and "Dancing at Lughnasa," is an expert raconteur, and "Faith Healer" brims with an almost mystical sense of story, complemented by three richly drawn characters.

Hardy is a role Fiennes was born to play. With his matinee-idol looks, Fiennes is the right actor for this vaguely overtheatrical, slightly gone-to-seed Irishman who travels the small towns of Scotland and Wales attempting to cure the afflicted.

Despite his ego, Hardy is filled with doubts — about himself and about his chosen profession, which he calls at the beginning of the evening, "a craft without an apprenticeship, a ministry without responsibility, a vocation without a ministry."

And the man is equally uneasy about the people he was attempting to heal, folks mired in misery and often coming not for a cure but for the reaffirmation that nothing could be done for them. As Hardy puts it, they "came to seal their anguish."

Anguish, almost a despair, permeates Grace, Hardy's wife. Or is she his mistress? It's never quite nailed down, although Grace firmly believes in their matrimonial bond. She is the most loyal of helpmates, suffering through several miscarriages and the stillborn birth of one child, buried in a field in the lonely Scottish countryside.

Jones doesn't attempt an accent — English, Irish or otherwise — but she brings an absolute conviction to the role of a woman totally in love with a man who has snared her in an abusive relationship. It's a poignant, heartbreaking portrait of a sad, desolate woman.

Offering some comic relief, and clearly the audience favorite, is McDiarmid as Teddy, the fussy, fey Cockney manager of Hardy's travels. Wearing a red bow tie and a scarlet smoking jacket, Teddy sits on stage and drinks several bottles of beer while telling stories of his show-biz travails and commenting on Hardy and Grace.

Of all the acts Teddy handled over the years, the most memorable was a whippet named Rob Roy who played the bagpipes brilliantly but wasn't exactly on the top of his game when put out to stud. It's a deliriously bit of comic acting by McDiarmid, best known for his role as Palpatine in the "Star Wars" movies.

In their monologues, the actors all mention one specific event, a fateful night in the small Irish town of Ballybeg (the setting for many of Friel's plays). Hardy has returned to his Irish roots and is attempting to come to terms with what he does by healing one last time.

What happens during that night is only hinted at in the first three monologues of the evening, but then becomes clearer in a fourth, when Fiennes makes another appearance to tie up the plot — well, at least clarify it a bit.

The production, which originated at the Gate Theatre in Dublin earlier this year, is directed by Jonathan Kent in a straightforward manner that's dazzling in its simplicity and yet very theatrical. It's framed by designer Jonathan Fensom's spare, almost barren setting for each actor — playing areas that magically change when a billowing white curtain is pulled across the stage.

"Faith Healer" was seen on Broadway in 1979 with a cast that included James Mason, Clarissa Kaye and Donal Donnelly. It ran only 20 performances. Time has treated the play well. And with the current sterling cast, this most intricate of Friel's plays should have a happier — make that a longer — life in New York.

By Michael Kuchwara