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June 3, 2024
Seeing Is Not Understanding
Molly Sweeney

Brian Friel’s play “Molly Sweeney" directed by Charlotte Moore is staged in the simplest form imaginable. The three major characters are seated in chairs on stage. They speak directly to the audience and never to one another. The staging works particularly well in the intimate Irish Repertory Theatre in the final installment of its season devoted to playwright Brian Friel’s.

Molly, the title character, beautifully played by the luminous Sarah Street, sits in the middle as the play begins. Molly has been blind since she was 10 months old but is content with her life. She wistfully recalls her father quizzing her about the flowers in their garden which she has learned by smell and touch. She works as a massage therapist, has friends and is married to the garrulous Frank. Molly is never bitter and unhappy. She can read people by the tones of their voices and by touch. “Seeing is not understanding” Friel reminds us several times and Molly is the most understanding character in the play.

The events that transpire over the course of six months happen to her. yet the two men who flank her on either side, her doctor and her husband, demand more attention than she does. Mr. Rice (Rufus Collins) an ophthalmologist, sees her as a way to redeem his career, a way to shed light on it once more. Frank, played by John Keating with a shock of hair evoking Doc Brown in “Back to the Future” is out of work, being supported by his blind wife. He has a history of pursuing unusual causes. Molly’s sight appears to be one more cause that Frank revels in researching. Even if she regains her sight, he notes, she would have to relearn everything.

Although she’s been examined over the years, doctors feel that nothing will help her. But Frank, a rambunctious ‘autodidact’ barges in on the doctor, insisting that he examine her records and take her case. The two men clearly dislike one another. Supposedly they are doing this for her, yet each has his hidden agenda and by the end, after the surgery, Molly suffers from ‘blind sight.”

Friel’s language is beautiful, yet some of the dialogue by the two men is too lengthy. There are several speeches that unnecessarily prolonged the play, especially from Frank. Although Keating is good, his character grows tiresome. He eventually gets to the point, but Friel has it go on too long.

The three actors do a fine job but Sweet is the one we care about as she maintains her composure and serenity. The two men have their own agenda and disrupt Molly ‘s world, yet she never asks for pity. She is treated like a pawn by two men who can’t see beyond their own self-interests.

The men have more stage time than Sweet does and she remains in the middle - literally and figuratively-as they verbally wrestle with one another. It’s frustrating to hear them talk about her as if she ‘is not there’ deciding her life and her future.

Today, we are aware of disabilities and making accommodations, never imagining that people might be better off the way they are. At first, the audience is hopeful about Molly's surgery. After all, shouldn't it make her life better? But by the end, she has lost the life that was so rich for her.

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
New York, NY 10011

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Written by: Elyse Trevers
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