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Big mouth: David Adkins in Faith Healer.

Spellbinder

By James Yeara

Faith Healer

By Brian Friel, directed by Eric Hill

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, Mass., through July 4

Someday

When I’m awfully low

When the world is cold

I will feel a glow just thinking of you

And the way you look tonight

—Lyrics by Dorothy Fields

The Unicorn Theatre darkens, and the beginning of “The Way You Look Tonight” is haltingly played on a piano note by note, as if the fingers were mystified by the song. This eerie quality soon melds with the severe side lighting of Francis “Frank” Hardy (Colin Lane), his sharp shadows cast onto the opposite wings. He stands center stage in his long black greatcoat over his funeral black suit and tie, regarding the audience, smiling slyly suddenly as if Frank has summed us up in ways that only become clear by play’s end. He intones as an invocation what turns out to be his “faith healer” circuit of Welsh villages; their odd vowels and eldritch consonants sound like a particularly complex dark arts spell from Harry Potter.

Faith Healer, Irish playwright Brian Friel’s 1979 masterpiece, is a play for people who demand infinitives when they go to a theater: to see, to hear, to feel, to laugh, to ponder. Currently playing at Berkshire Theatre Festival’s intimate Unicorn Theatre—an ideal venue—the play’s four monologues take 144 minutes, and the pacing and acting meld like the sounds and lights of the opening moments, and a true timelessness is created. The three actors play three characters who, in telling their interwoven stories, create dozens of other characters. Each character imitates and quotes the other two, often contradicting what the others have told the audience, and the intimacy of the trio both welcomes and appalls the audience, sometimes in the same moment. The sounds, syntax, and words of the Irish “faith healer,” Frank, his upper-class English mistress (a former barrister) Grace (Keira Naughton, one of the busiest actresses in the Berkshires), and his elderly Cockney barker, Teddy (David Adkins), fascinates or, to use one of Frank’s favorite words, “mesmerizes” the audience. It’s in their aural distinctions; their very different accents, movements, and stillness; the variations, prevarications, and epiphanies in their storytelling; that make this Faith Healer memorable.

Lane’s Hardy is a showman half disgusted with himself, half delighted with his hold over an audience. Reminiscent of Frank Langella in his prime, Lane has that supreme actor’s preternatural timing, the ability to hold an audience with a gesture that develops and flows assuredly and in time with Friel’s lines. “I always knew, drunk or sober, I always knew when nothing was going to happen,” Frank tells us, letting us mostly see the fearlessness of the statement, but also the terror beneath the words.

Lane is matched by the excellence of Naughton, creating an upper-class English woman slutting herself in all senses of the word for a man she loves and loathes in equal measures. Naughton’s Grace is as full of delusions—“I am making progress” she states, her expressive hands wrapped around the glass and whisky bottle that is drained throughout her monologue, as if they were the only things propping her up—as of frank revelations: “I am a mess; I am one of his fictions, too.”

As Teddy, David Adkins is a marvel. His grayed hair slicked in a bad comb-over, frequently shuffling in his black slippers to the icebox for another beer, Teddy revels in stories. (This caused the audience to both marvel at Adkins’ ability to drink so much, fear for his sobriety, and speculate out loud what he was drinking; to keep the focus on the show and end the speculation, it’s colored tonic water.) While Frank and Grace are all too aware of the pathos in their past, Teddy’s sneaks up him as he marvels at his former acts “Rob Roy, the Piping Dog,” the pigeon girl, and “the fan-tas-tic Fran-cis Har-dee, Fafe-Heal-er: one night o-lee,” until Teddy’s repeated mantra, “Friends is friends and work is work, and, as the poet says, never the twain shall meet,” unravels him. Despite the laughter he creates from his stories and his drinking shtick, Teddy ends up askew in his upholstered arm chair, beer in hand, the other putting down the needle to “The Way You Look Tonight.”

Director Eric Hill has rendered another masterpiece at BTF. From scenic designer Chesapeak Westveer’s perfect forced perspective set to Charles Schoonmaker’s perfect costume design (right down to Frank Hardy’s brilliant green socks), to J. Hagenbuckle’s subtle sound design, Hill has created a production worthy of Friel’s excellent play. It’s a production that earns its infinitives: to stand and to applaud.

 


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