Molly Sweeney

Photo courtesy of The Modesto Bee
Photo courtesy of The Modesto Bee

Brian Friel’s
Molly Sweeney

Prospect Theater Project is proud to present the third show of its 2008-2009 season, Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney. Molly Sweeney is directed by PTP veteran Michael Caine, who also directed Talley’s Folly, The Lion in Winter, and Deathtrap at PTP. It stars Andrew Burkum, Kathleen Ennis, and Jim Johnson.

Molly Sweeney opens on Friday, February 20th, and runs through Sunday, March 15th, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 8pm, Sunday afternoons at 2pm, and Thursday, March 12th at 8pm. The Talk Back Sunday will occur after the March 8th performance. All performances are at 520 Scenic Drive in Modesto. Tickets are $15 and may be reserved by calling 209-549-9341 or by visiting our online Box Office.

Molly Sweeney is a play adapted from the narrative of neuroscientist Oliver Sacks. In an exceptional string of books, Sacks has brought audiences a series of compelling stories about various kinds of neurological catastrophe. A painter loses all perception of colors. The world appears to him in obscene shades of gray-white. He can, as a result, no longer paint or even embrace his wife because she appears loathsome to him. Patients suffer pains, or itches, from limbs that were amputated long ago. A miracle drug reverses the comas of patients suffering from meningitis, restoring them to full vitality. But the medication loses effectiveness, they retreat into permanent sleep again. (This story was made into the movie Awakenings, with Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams.) A man retains his ability to reason but loses any capacity to distinguish between the objects in front of him: a hat and a person are identical to him. (This story, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” was made into an opera, performed in San Francisco ten years ago.)

The logic of the marriage between Sacks, a scientist (though also a humanist) and Brian Friel, Ireland’s greatest living playwright, is not apparent at first sight. But it’s a marriage made in heaven, because both of them write about the same thing, which is loss and isolation.

There is a blind woman. Her name is Molly. Molly Sweeney. She’s forty-one years old. For more than forty years, she has survived, even thrived, as a woman without sight. She has a job –she’s a massage therapist in a local spa—and a husband –she’s two years married. But she doesn’t see, beyond shadows and vague movement at the periphery of her vision.

There is her husband. His name is Frank. Frank’s a dreamer, but not one whose projects you want to invest in. His enthusiasms are short-lived and ill conceived: he imports Iranian goats into the blustery winter of County Mayo and the sheep end up living six months out of twelve inside his house to avoid the cold and never yield milk at all. He’s excited about importing African killer bees and shepherding a convoy through Ethiopia. One of his enthusiasms is restoring his wife, Molly’s, sight. Whether she wants it or not.

There is a doctor. His name is Rice. Patrick Rice. He was once a bright light, a “meteor” in his chosen profession of eye surgeon. Then his wife ran away with his closest friend and he found solace in a bottle. Now he’s a second-rate hack in a provincial hospital in Donegal. Molly is his passport back to respectability. If he can restore her sight ….

Frank pushes, Rice pulls, Molly acquiesces without knowing what she’s getting herself into. The operation works. Her sight is restored, not perfect but more than she’s ever known.

And her world falls apart. Molly knew how to negotiate her old world of tactile evidence. She’d mastered it, was comfortable and fluent in it. Now she must relearn the world –her husband Frank, a relentless but inept autodidact says, she must learn “new engrams.” All her old knowledge and competence is shut away from her; the new world is a blooming confusion, to paraphrase William James. It’s not only confusing, it’s ugly. Learning to maneuver in the world of the sighted after forty years blind is hard work. Molly moves from being a highly competent human being who didn’t perceive her handicap as a liability to one who can’t compete in the sighted world because she is forty years behind the curve.

From there on, it’s downhill in this poignant, thoughtful, reflective and even unexpectedly funny play about the human cost of change –in Molly’s case, the loss of competence and exile from her true self. Brian Friel is a master wordsmith who has never written about a more serious theme than the one explored in Molly Sweeney.