Faith Healer

Closed August 13 after a limited run at the Booth Theater on Broadway.

The image of a barren landscape marked by a single blasted tree — the first thing we see in this production of Brian Friel’s play Faith Healer — lets us know immediately that whatever the play is about, it’s not faith, at least not a living faith. I confess I’m not entirely sure what it is about, though. Friel’s writing touches on the contradictions of hope, how its presence can sometimes be more painful than its absence, and the indignities of chance, the sense that we have little control over the courses of our lives. But I had some difficulty knitting it all together in my mind.

Faith Healer is riveting, certainly, and thoughtful and lyrical, but I wondered what to make of it in the end. As an acting showcase, it’s mesmerizing. Friel’s conversational yet writerly monologues gave Ralph Fiennes, Cherry Jones and Ian McDiarmid bountiful material to create rich, memorable characters, and the play surely would lend itself to repeat viewings or, even better, careful reading. Yet I suspect that even after all of that, it would reveal itself to be a brilliant quartet of monologues, nothing less but little more.

Fiennes plays Frank Hardy, a traveling faith healer who candidly describes himself to us as a mountebank, a charlatan. Jones plays his long-suffering, seemingly traumatized wife, Grace, and McDiarmid portrays Teddy, Frank’s buoyant manager. First Frank speaks, then Grace, then Teddy and finally Frank again in a series of distinct monologues, delivered directly to the audience. No one is a particularly reliable narrator — one suspects that Frank is the least trustworthy of all — so the four scenes often cover common ground from different perspectives. Friel leaves it to us to piece together bits of information and disinformation as we seek to understand what happened during Frank’s fateful return to his homeland of Ireland.

At first, I was disappointed that Faith Healer had brought together such a stunning trio of actors only to keep them apart, never interacting with each other until they took their bows at the curtain, but the individual performances were so captivating and persuasive that I soon forgot that complaint. The acting was all the more impressive because none of the three were playing the sort of character I expect of them.

Fiennes’ Frank was awkward and uncharismatic, his body language hunched and cringing. (After all, Frank is no magnetic evangelist; he only scraped by as a faith healer.) As Grace, Jones spent much of her soliloquy on the edge of hysteria. She wasn’t a strong woman but a beat-down shell, someone who had lost every scrap of pride and optimism she once held. McDiarmid dropped his usual regal bearing and reshaped himself into a giggly, grasshopper-like old man to play Teddy. These transformations were disconcerting at first, but the actors’ talent and their unshaking commitment to their roles made the performances work nonetheless. Each holds our attention with seeming effortless; we hang not only on their words but on their silences, too.

The play is stark, humorous in a few places but mostly heavy and dense. Frank puts forth the most intriguing idea in the first scene: He posits that most people come to his performances (his word) not because they truly hope to be healed but because they want him to rid them of the last vestiges of hope so that they can move on with their lives freed from perpetually unrealized dreams. What torments him, then, is that he cannot reliably give then even that, for occasionally the healing works. The chance is his torture.

It’s a provocative thought, one articulated beautifully by Friel and delivered powerfully by Fiennes. Jones and McDiarmid fill in the rest of the sad tale of the Fantastic Frank Harvey, Faith Healer. And yet I can’t help feel that there ought to have been something more, something transcendent, something that would have made Faith Healer a true tragedy instead of tragic story. What that would be, I’m not sure. Maybe it was there, and I missed it.