See the Light

Blinded by the light: Julie Briskman Hall has vision without sight in Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney

Molly Sweeney
The Guthrie Lab

M. Butterfly
Theatre in the Round

You can't name the colors cast by the stage lights over the Guthrie Lab's Molly Sweeney. The set is plain: A white canvas spans the stage; three chairs draped with fabric sit on top of a platform framed by a tall screen against the back wall. The lights are the paint--but what is the hue? What is its name? It is either pink or white one moment, green or yellow another. The shades lie just between the known; we see, but we do not comprehend.

Color means little to Molly Sweeney, the heroine of Brian Friel's play; she's been blind since she was 10 months old. Molly names flowers by texture and scent. Understanding occurs through a sequence of observations: The stem is thorny, the leaves spare, the petals thick and soft: It is a rose. Now, at 40, Molly might regain her sight through an operation. But if it works, would she know the object in front of her is even a flower? Can someone who has been blind for four decades learn to name with her eyes?

That's the rub for the three characters who narrate Molly's life in alternating monologues. Molly herself (Julie Briskman Hall) speaks and gestures with the fluid motions and rich laugh of your favorite dinner-party guest. She tells us she has never lusted for sight. She bikes and swims already: Seeing, Molly claims, would qualify these sensations. "If they all only knew how total my pleasure was," she says. "Oh, how they must envy me."

For her husband, though, securing Molly's sight is one in a series of projects that has included bee-farming, whale-tending, and cheese-making (difficult, as the Iranian-born goats refused to adjust to the Irish time zone.) Frank (Charles Janasz) twitches and sputters and spits, wandering as randomly around the stage as he does through his stories. He's made a folder dedicated to Molly's blindness filled with such information as ophthalmologic techniques from Tibet, which bears the inscription, "Researched and compiled by Frank O. Sweeney."

Mr. Otto Didact, is what Molly's doctor (Jarlath Conroy) calls Frank. This doctor--once famous, recently disgraced--needs Molly. "She could be," he postulates holding his gray lapels, "what is that vulgar parlance? The chance of a lifetime?"

The men flanking Molly assure her that she has nothing to lose by trying these operations. We know they're wrong. We see it in Molly's ebullience. We feel it in the swirling unease of indeterminate colors. What will happen to Molly's joy in a world she can no longer understand?

With Joe Dowling's simple staging, Molly Sweeney offers a beautiful world, indeed, although the audience may tire of watching two hours and 40 minutes of talking heads. It's a lot to take, no matter how stellar the performances, or how lyric the text. It's a shame when the ticking clock lets the outside world encroach on this evening. Like Molly, we want to keep our experience whole.

Rene Gallimard is a man whose eyes have deceived him for two decades. "I, Rene Gallimard, have known, and been loved by... The Perfect Woman," he brags from his jail cell--although he's wrong on at least two counts. "The Perfect Woman" for this French ambassador to China is Madame Butterfly--a Western construction of the submissive "Oriental girl." This icon is at the heart of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, a passionate play about intellectual stuff, which sends time and meaning tumbling through the brain.

In Theatre in the Round's production, Butterfly flickers around the perimeter of the stage, while Gallimard stands at center bragging about his courtship of Chinese diva Song Liling. "I knew this little flower was waiting for me to call," he says, "and as I wickedly refused to do so, I felt for the first time that rush of power--the absolute power of a man."

Song moves with studied grace--a gentle tilt of the head, a languid turning of the shoulders. Yet her affected voice and undeniable stature make Song about as feminine as Miss Richfield 1981. In the Beijing opera, women's roles are played by men--a factoid missed by this Ugly Frenchman. And, over a 20-year period, this diplomat fails to question why Song (Nathan Aasness) will only let him take her from behind, and neglects to notice his little communist woman's interest in government affairs--like France's plans for Indochina.

We're a bit more savvy, but Hwang's script is designed to hold our attention. If the action unfolds at the pace of Gallimard's palpitating heart, we move in a whirlwind where perception does not have time to transform into realization. This story takes place inside a desperate man's head, a psyche spiraling inevitably toward a denouement he begs us to avoid. But in Theatre in the Round's production, actors proceed as if this were real time. Without urgency, the play dribbles along, leaving us twitching in our seats, barely avoiding the urge to shout, "Dude! She's a guy! Let's go home!"

Molly Sweeney plays at the Guthrie Lab through October 4; 377-2224. M. Butterfly runs through October 11 at Theatre in the Round; 333-3010.

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