Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, now in production at Odyssey Theatre, has a structure that has been compared to Rashomon, in that certain events are experienced by three characters whose memories of those events are, of course, unique to them while overlapping in some details. Emotional memories are another story. In the 1970s in various locations in Wales, Scotland, England and Ireland, Frank Hardy (Paul Norwood), follows the questionable profession of an itinerate faith healer. No big church Oral Roberts, Frank, along with his paramour and eventual wife, Grace (Diana Cignoni), and manager, Teddy (Ron Bottitta), travel all over the British Isles earning a meager living. The thing is, sometimes faith healing seems to work, and sometimes not. It’s a mysterious thing the laying on of hands or the calling on the powers of a deity. Frank himself can’t be sure he can cure. Once he “cured” an entire group of ten souls. Other times? Pfffftttt!
In the two-act structure of the play, each character tells their story in a monologue delivered directly to the audience, starting with Frank, himself. Where is he? That is unsure. Where are Vladimir and Estragon? The minimalist set has a platform stage right where a person could address a crowd. On stage left are three rows of motley chairs. A large banner upstage reads:
There is no denying that Frank, as played by handsome, mature, white-haired Paul Norwood, has a charisma that draws in an audience. But he questions his own abilities. He looks back on his life, regaling the audience with telling details. In the practice of his “art,” sometimes he has IT and sometimes IT eludes him. How does faith healing work? He doesn’t know. What is clear is that this character can fascinate a modern audience that sits within his arm’s reach. He looked straight into my eyes (or seemed to) many times during his monologue. Myself? Sorry, but the hackneyed critic’s superlative, “riveting,” applies.
After a blackout, Grace, played with searing emotion by Diana Cignoni, claims the stage sitting in a chair with a table at hand. She tells her story of a German girl who fled from her father, a rigid magistrate, to join with Frank on his decades of rambling. Her memories of Frank are sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, and at least on one occasion, harrowingly tragic. Her gentle German accent and engaging smile can turn on an instant into tears and agony. Her bed-sit is cozy for her. She has her prescription, for what is unclear, and a bottle close at hand for alcoholic comfort. The tales of her relationship with Frank are bittersweet.
Regarded in Frank’s story as little more than a gofer, the strangely devoted Cockney manager, Teddy, as rendered by the superb Ron Bottitta, is a powerful presence. After pouring a bottle of real beer into a glass, he roams the stage, sipping beer and expounds on his days as Frank’s manager with winsome bitterness. Although he was definitely a put-upon person, his relationship with Frank and especially Grace was intimate in an underling’s sort of way. He takes pride in what he did, and the upstage banner, which he rescued from a dustbin, is his. I noticed as I left the auditorium that there was only an inch of beer remaining in Teddy’s glass. What a trouper!
There is a central incident in the play that justifies the Rashomon analogy. Each character remembers different elements of the event and Frank returns to the stage to close out the evening with a climactic moment that leaves no room for a dénouement.
Brilliantly directed by Ron Sossi, Faith Healer is a powerful, absorbing drama of the highest caliber served up by an ideal cast. The show is produced simply with an unpretentious set by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, spot-on lighting by Rose Malone, a sound design by the always-excellent Christopher Moscatiello, and perfect costumes by Denise Blasor.
Presented by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Ron Sossi Artistic Director, Faith Healer runs through May 12 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.