The most important thing Bruce Friel does in his latest play, Molly Sweeney, is expose the double-edged nature of so-called medical miracles. If he'd have thought more deeply about the subject, he might have made a genuine work of art. As it is, he has written an absorbing piece of theater that promises more than it finally delivers. Fortunately for us, the Denver Center Theatre Company's production is fine-tuned and fully realized, so despite the play's limitations, the best of Friel's humanistic vision does shine through.
The story, which is told in long monologues by the three principal characters, concerns a woman who has been almost completely blind since she was ten months old. Brought up by her father to know every flower in his garden by smell and touch, as a child she enjoyed an extraordinary relationship with the world around her. Happy, confident and intelligent, she made a good living in young adulthood as a masseuse at a health club. But at 39 she married Frank--a jack of all trades and master of none. And one day he dragged her off to an ophthalmologist--Mr. Rice, a good man suffering from existential paralysis. Depressed for years on end after the breakup of his marriage, the good doctor saw the removal of Molly's cataracts as his one last chance to pull himself together.
But neither Frank nor Mr. Rice ever stopped to consider how Molly's life would change if her sight were restored. As Friel shifts between the past and the present, the successful operation at first seems to be a blessing. Mr. Rice has his day in the sun--a saintly light even seems to glance off of him. All of Molly's friends rally joyfully to congratulate her. She is struck with wonder. Her husband spends every waking moment trying to "teach" her to see.
But the brave new world Molly inhabits is also strange and frightening. She can no longer rely on her other senses but must cultivate sight. Her safe little world is gone. The pair of psychologists who study her like a guinea pig (they're writing a book on the subject) note that she is not making the right kind of adjustments. She starts acting crazy. She loses her job. She loses her marriage. Then she loses it altogether and ends up in a psychiatric hospital, unsure of the difference between her fantasy life and "external reality."
Friel takes on a lot in this play. He wants us to understand that science is not necessarily righteous--that just because a thing can be done doesn't mean it should be done. Several times during the course of the story, Friel has the doctor speak of a healing that Jesus performed on a blind man. The doctor is clearly trying to comfort himself, even making himself out to be a kind of savior. But medical remedies are not the same as spiritual healings, and unlike the miracle performed in the biblical story, Molly's cure is merely physical. She is cut adrift in a nightmare. Mr. Rice's pride eventually takes a fall when he gazes down at Molly in her hospital bed and says, "I'm sorry."
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If Mr. Rice has failed Molly, Frank's failure as a husband is even worse. He appears to be a big, dumb teddy bear who knows what's best for his little woman. In fact, he's a weakling who looks for salvation in somebody else's temple. When things get a little too rough and Molly starts breaking down emotionally, he is neither strong enough nor wise enough to help her find her way in the darkness.
Frank Corrado is perfect as Frank--a sturdy, square man, he projects a brash humor and kind heart as easily as he does weakness and willfulness. Jeanne Paulsen is luminous as Molly, inhabiting her role completely and taking us inside Molly's dark world. And as the doctor, Tony Church finds whole new vistas of meaning in apparently ambiguous lines of dialogue, masterfully revealing the layers of selfishness, kindliness and cool indifference the role demands.
No, there's nothing wrong with the acting here, or with Bruce K. Sevy's sensitive direction. If the viewer feels dissatisfied, Friel has to take the blame. He writes like a poet--in musical, lovely, precise terms--and he has a tragic sense of what life in the twentieth century is all about. But even when dressed up in the finery of his language and his humanism, this play still has no place to go. His sad point about science interfering where it doesn't belong ultimately seems like a sociology lesson; perhaps the problem is that Friel himself is blind to the greater possibilities of human nature.
Molly Sweeney, through December 14 at the Ricketson Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.