Theater Review: FAITH HEALER (Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on March 24, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE BUSINESS OF FAITH

The late Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Faith Healer premiered some 40 years ago and is now considered one of his greatest works. It is a memory play with three characters, told in a series of monologues. Frank is an Irish faith healer who takes his one-man show to isolated villages and impoverished towns, mainly in Wales, Scotland, and finally, Ireland. He is wholly dependent on two enablers, his German wife Grace whom he taunts by calling his mistress, and his agent and promoter, a Cockney called Teddy.

Frank is self-reverential in the way of manic depressives. At times he is awed by his own greatness, at others, he seems to regard himself with even more contempt than he does everyone else. His narcissism is toxic, but his magnetism is meant to be so powerful that he holds Grace and Teddy in thrall, even as they are clear-eyed about his twisted inner life and increasing dependency on alcohol.

Following her life with Frank, Grace is now something of a mess, prone to jagged emotional transitions, drinking and drugging far too much, and only able to work a few hours a day in a library. Teddy’s glory days were behind him even before he met Frank. His former clients included a female pigeon impressionist who would call out to her birds from the stage. It was a success, until galloping shingles killed the birds, and his client couldn’t go on.

Frank, Grace, and Teddy play the small time, barely eking out a living. They tell us their versions of events, the details differing slightly in some ways, monumentally in others. It’s like a version of Rashomon where instead of a murder, the central event is an inexorable decline into emotional cruelty and hopelessness.

What all three agree on, is that occasionally, when they least expected it, between Frank’s repeated failures to heal anyone, astounding success would come, in moments of almost impossible glory. Especially one show in Wales, an event the monologists return to again and again, when Frank cured the horribly debilitating conditions of ten suffering people. On Frank’s return to Ireland, he heals a man’s misshapen finger, but then when he cannot heal a wheelchair-bound man, his audience revolts and he loses his last bit of belief in himself.

Ron Bottitta is quite engaging as Teddy, and his Cockney accent is impeccable — he could play the new con man on EastEnders and easily fool the locals. He doesn’t appear in the first act, but when he shows up in the second, he gives an enjoyable jolt to the proceedings. Diana Cignoni is riveting as Grace, raw, nuanced, and wry as her piercing eyes dare us to judge her choices.

But the whole show hinges on Frank. Paul Norwood, while always believable, is more affable than electric. The character must live on a knife-edge of feeling. Here he feels comfy and cozy, which robs the evening of its momentum. Mr. Norwood’s Irish accent is uneven. He goes easy with it, so, thankfully, he never verges on selling Lucky Charms or Irish Spring (it’s appalling how many American actors do) but its intensity goes in and out, and when the character is called upon to mimic Teddy’s accent, things go very wrong.

Director Ron Sossi does sensitive, imaginative work here, but Faith Healer asks a lot of the audience. It employs the kind of Irish storytelling that thrives on repetition and the poetic rhythm of language. Without enough emotional energy, it can sink into itself. The show’s long monologues offer no direct interplay between characters, and the flow of so many words can have a hypnotizing effect. Regrettably, on the night I went, several people in the audience fell asleep. Others stood and cheered at the end.

photos by Enci Box

Faith Healer
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd in West L.A.
Fri & Sat at 8; Sun at 2; Wed at 8 (April 10 & May 8); Thurs at 8 (April 18)
ends on May 12, 2019
for tickets, call 310.477.2055 or visit Odyssey

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

gloria levy March 26, 2019 at 12:27 pm

I have been attending ODYSSEY theatre for 40 years….I can point out the regular sleepers…..

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