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By John Quinn
Posted: Dec. 9, 2012 at 10:40 a.m.; updated Dec. 13 at 4:40 p.m.
The Celts have a word for it: "Glamour." It is the spell that the eldritch folk can cast to deceive the senses of mortals, making things appear more attractive than they truly are. The performing arts are all about glamour, but some companies defy tradition for a far more potent magic – the fundamental dialogue between artist and audience. It's an experience that only theater can provide. The Abreact and its artistic director, Charles Reynolds, explore truth versus illusion in Brian Friel's "Faith Healer," and the result is spell-binding.
"Faith Healer" is a challenge few artists could accept. But director Reynolds and three of Detroit's brighter lights; Keith Kalinowski, Jaime Warrow and Peter Prouty, take on its convoluted plot and unconventional narrative with the apparent ease of a spring walk in Killarney. There's some real magic in that alone.
"Faith Healer" is the second in The Abreact's showcase of contemporary Irish playwrights. In a comparison of this play with the first, Martin McDonagh's "A Skull in Connemara," one is struck by the liberating influence on his successors of playwright Samuel Beckett ("Waiting for Godot," among many others), who bravely booted theatrical convention. "Skull" is an absurdist romp, full of dark Irish humor. In "Faith Healer" Friel ignores past and future for an omni-present now, throws out linear narration, and tells his story in four monologues delivered by three characters.
That's the story of Limerick-born Francis (Frank) Hardy, self-styled healer, who tours the Gaelic portion of the British Isles accompanied by his wife, Grace, and his manager, Teddy. Each takes the stage in turn to recount the story of Frank's mission. But the story is a puzzle whose pieces don't fit. Each character has a different narrative of the same period. Ultimately, it is futile to ask who is telling the "truth" and accept that perception, whether delusion or illusion, is more important than reality. In short, their lives are clouded by glamour.
Monologue is a tough sell. For the actor, he or she is most vulnerable, figuratively naked and literally alone with an audience. For that audience, poorly performed monologue is a real bore. There is nothing boring about this production; even though the play clocks in at well over two hours, the cast commands our attention at every turn. That is partly due to the respect paid to Friel's gradually revealed plot, but mostly it is the utter honesty of these three performances that casts a spell. Each character is a study in conflict; each actor resolves the conflict.
Keith Kalinowski finds both sides of troubled Frank, who is simultaneously doubtful and sure of his "powers." His two monologues act as bookends to the other characters' stories. In the second, Kalinowski's portrayal of Friel's recurring theme of birth into death is riveting.
Jaime Warrow's Grace is another study in contrasts; we don't recognize in the Jameson-swilling, chain-smoking, damaged soul the woman Frank remembers. Grace is a self-described mess, and Warrow's intelligent interpretation reveals the character's heartbreak.
Peter Prouty is no newbie at monologue; he was the 2012 Wilde Award winner for Best Solo Performance in "The Devil and Billy Markham" at The Abreact. Here he brings an elegant turn of emotion as Teddy, whose ideal is "Business is business," gradually admits he loved Grace – and Frank, too.
There is a recurrent theme in "Faith Healer" that is thought-provoking: the performer as sacrifice. It must be sobering for artists to spend weeks living these lost characters, tinged with Friel's metaphor; a walk in the shadows of the Valley of Death, career-wise. Their journey is an unexpected, but gracious, holiday gift.
SHOW DETAILS: "Faith Healer" continues at The Abreact Performance Space, 1301 W. Lafayette, #113, Detroit, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Dec. 29, plus 8 p.m. Tuesday (industry night), Jan. 18 and 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 23. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Tickets: Free; donations accepted. For information: www.theabreact.com.
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