theater (reviews)

review: faith healer

[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-FAITH.html]

FAITH HEALER

by Brian Friel
Directed by Mikhael Tara Garver
Uma Productions at Chopin Theatre
1543 W. Division / (773) 347-1375
www.umaproductions.org
Through February 10, 2007

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 12, 2007

Uma Productions has created a gem of a production out of a challenging play, in a corner of the downstairs space at the Chopin Theatre. The “Faith Healer” production team has made a choice about the setting and staging of the play (I’ll let you be surprised) that immediately and physically draws you into this world of subterranean, back door showmanship in small town England and Ireland (and other locales) in the first half of the 20th century. You ultimately find yourself in a well-lit timbered room, festooned with a simple banner heralding the faith healer’s work, and entertained as you settle into your folding chairs by an array of movie soundtrack recordings by Fred Astaire: “The Piccolino” , “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket”, “I’m Building Up to an Awful Let-Down”, “I’d Rather Lead A Band”, and “Just the Way You Look Tonight”, all emanating, we are to believe, from a wind up Victrola in the corner of our basement room. Will this be comedy or will this be tragedy?

“Faith Healer” is a sequentially told story involving three characters with intertwined lives: the title’s showman Frank (Chris Hainsworth), his manager Teddy (James William Joseph), and the showman’s mistress and companion Grace (the lovely and quietly powerfulDanica Ivancevic). The story is told linearly, in solo acts, much in the vein of Laurence Durrell‘s “Alexandria Quartet” novels named for individual characters, all of whom shared the same set of experiences and their own spin on events. In this case, playwright Frielprovides four scenes as monologues, that have been staged by Mikhael Tara Garver in two acts, each containing a conversation between one of our three characters and us in the audience — those who have assembled to be “healed”. Frank opens and closes the storytelling with a big, broad, charismatic, obtuse and perhaps confused version of events. Sandwiched between Frank’s discourses first Grace, his wounded mistress, provides her impressions, followed by the talent manager and tour companion Teddy.

We immediately ask of Frank’s skills: is it “busking” or is it inspiration?. Well into the piece we learn that Fred Astaire’s version of Jerome Kern’s lovely bouncy tune that welcomes us into the show, “Just the Way You Look Tonight”, was the only recording the traveling band hand with them to warm up the crowed, that it was played before every performance, and that each of the characters has a different story about why that recording followed them throughout their travels.. This is the first example of individually variable “truths” unveiled during the play. As the wounds get deeper and the events grow in complexity, the versions of our characters stories grow understandable further and further apart.

Grace is a woman who participates in the fiction she lives. She notes that Frank “always called it a performance” and that “before a performance, there was an erosion .. he obliterated me”. We learn that Grace is highly educated, and that her choice of mate was a wild disappointment to her distant parents. She selects a man who replicates this dynamic, saying of Frank “he looked past me … beyond me.” We are ultimately as haunted by her as she is by some of the events in her life. This is a loving and rich performance by Ms. Ivancevic of a deeply damaged soul

Teddy the manager provides a welcome superficial and bouncy conversational style after the tough stories we’ve heard, but we gradually see the pain beneath his veneer too. He adds to our assemblage of darkly humorous, painfully specific, sometimes inspired views of disappointed expectations in art, talent, intelligence, belief. When Teddy describes Frank’s art, when it works, when its perfect, when the magic happens Think Roy Schneider as the Bob Fosse character in “All That Jazz” saying, increasingly quietly, “It’s show time.” As the Kander and Ebb tune says, “it’s a quiet thing.”

The characters (and perhaps the performances) of Grace and Teddy are more compelling, oddly, than Frank the blustering showman. Each character appears to be oblivious to key dramas in his or her own life; each character reflects on events reported slightly differently or not at all by each of the other characters. The selective absence of reportage begs different kinds of questions. This is not a light comic tale but one that will lead you into darker dimensions of human behavior. Ah, this is why some of us go to theatre in the first place! A cleanly crafted tale, portrayed solidly and movingly by a stolid and graceful group of young actors.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 12, 2007)

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