IF WE TAKE the ending, the last few things said by Molly Sweeney in Brian Friel's play of the same name, we find ourselves at this point: "I think I see nothing at all now. But I'm not absolutely sure of that. Anyhow my borderline country is where I live now. I'm at home there. Well . . . at ease there. It certainly doesn't worry me anymore that what I think I see may be fantasy or indeed what I take to be imagined may very well be real . . . external reality. Real -- imagined -- fact -- fiction -- fantasy -- reality -- there it seems to be. And it seems to be all right. And why should I question any of it anymore?"
Molly is in a psychiatric hospital. There she is visited by neighbors, a friend, her surgeon one last time, but also by a neighbor man's deceased wife, her father long gone, and her mother long gone, once a resident herself of this same Irish hospital. She is not crazy in any ordinary clinical sense; the world she was at home in, the world of a blind woman, has been interfered with, unraveled, and scattered out of reach. For a time, thanks to brilliant eye surgery by a Mr. Rice, she was able to see a bit of the world. Now she has lapsed into a curious condition know as blindsight.
In the hands of the Irish Classical Theatre Company this long and perhaps difficult play works to perfection. Josephine Hogan gives a luminously beautiful portrait of this 41-year-old woman. As she says these her last words she feels her way barefooted around the low stone wall of a tiny pond. A sundial is in the center. She circles around, then inward until she is treading in the shallow water and finally stops centrally, folding down over the sundial. It is a formal and orderly finish to a play whose formalities, orderlinesses and structure have been intimately explored by the director Vincent O'Neill.
O'Neill's deepened sense of musical structure pays big dividends here. The play is a journey. Molly's goes from sightlessness to partial restoration to descent into blindsight in a little under one year. Blindsight describes a condition in which a person sees but doesn't know it; the neural processes do not formulate in consciousness. Molly, her husband, Frank, and the surgeon, Mr. Rice tell her story. They draw closer as the pivotal point of her surgery is approached and then scatter as events collapse around them. The physical patterns of the performance symbolize this psychological movement. They are wonderfully aided by Kenneth Shaw's set and lighting design.
The experience of the audience will be quite different, and run counter to Molly's, Frank's and Rice's experiences. As things fall apart for the characters, things come together for us. The viewpoints cohere into one story, running counter to the what happens to them. In despair Frank departs for Ethiopia; Mr. Rice leaves the small Irish town; Molly retreats into the psychiatric hospital.
O'Neill follows Friel's suggestion that Molly occupy a central staging area, Mr. Rice to one side, and Frank to the other. But O'Neill also allows some cross-over, and in fact there is a lot of movement. And what could easily reduce to static performance is enlivened by the tremendous energy brought to the characters by Michael Russo as Frank, Michael Simpson as Mr. Rice, and of course Ms. Hogan as Molly.
Frank and Rice are poles apart. Frank is enormously hungry for knowledge, for facts, data about the world. Russo turns him into an engaging and funny charmer. Rice is analytical, authoritative, condescending, cooly candid. Simpson gets at this in depth, as well as a deep unhappiness in Rice. To him, Frank is no more than a pest, a zealous autodidact.
The first act ends on the eve of Molly's first eye surgery. The seconds begins with all three sitting in close proximity on the low pond wall. This is the closest they will get. From here on out their worlds fly apart.
Sight and its surgical restoration are little more than raw material for what Friel is up to. He is one of the subtlest writers for theater. No matter how simple the initial conditions or material may seem, he produces densely layered work that refers backwards and forwards across the evening. With sight as more metaphor than anything else the questions tend to, How do we make a world? On seeing, how do we understand what we see? How do we construct from these things a world? Once we make this world we live in, our home -- from the material of the senses, perceptions, synthesis, from manifold experience -- what happens if it is taken away?
Molly's sightless world is whole, and comfortable. The impetus to restore her sight comes from two outer directions, both contaminated by selfishness. In another metaphor Mr. Rice knows what it is like to lose a world -- his beautiful wife, and children. His loss plunged him into emotional darkness, a kind of psychological blindness. He sees in Molly the chance to restore his standing in the world of superstar surgeons. For Frank Molly is a cause like his other causes; what better than to have her see the world he sees, constantly investigates, explores, gathers information on.
Phrases keep coming up: "What does she have to lose?" Later it becomes, "She had everything to lose." Another is, "Seeing is not understanding." Which is to say, the act of seeing is gathering information (Frank's speciality), understanding is placing it somewhere, making a home for it, a world in which one feels comfortable and at home. Lose that, and we find ourselves back at Molly's last words.
The Calumet Theatre's intimate space is perfect for this play and for this remarkably intense and accurate performance.
Rating:**** 1/2 Drama by Brian Friel about a woman regaining her sight, about her relationship to her husband and surgeon. Directed by Vincent O'Neill for the Irish Classical Theatre Com pany, featuring Josephine Ho gan, Michael Russo and Michael Simpson. Performances continue Thurs. and Fri. at 7:30, Sat. at 3 and 7:30, and Sun. at 2, through Nov. 16. Calumet Theatre, 48 W. Chippewa St. (853-4282).