It is easy to forget the extraordinary acting that can occur in the tiny, dark, back-room, second floor stages in Chicago's off-the-beaten-path theaters, but "Faith Healer" by Brian Friel is a shining example of the best that can be seen.
The Den Theatre's remount of Friel's almost 20-year-old play features the original cast consisting of Brad Armacost, Lia D. Mortensen and Si Osborne. These three tell a dark, beautiful and familiar story of relationships and the damage people who love one another can do to each other, given enough time.
Frank Hardy (Si Osborne) is the Fantastic Faith Healer, in the 1930s, who travels around the Irish and Welsh country with his wife Grace (Lia D. Mortensen) and this manager Teddy (Brad Armacost). The play is told in four monologues by the three characters.
First, Frank talks about his experiences as a healer, how that power would flow through him and how it wouldn't and that would leave him bereft. There are several incidents that all three characters come back to again and again in their monologues, like certain towns where the gift was upon Frank and he healed 12 people. There was another town where tragedy struck the little group. And always, there was the drink, which was Frank's main demon.
Grace's monologue is clearly after she and Frank are no long together. She is fragile and brittle, but Mortensen plays her with some of her old spark and verve showing through. Grace's version of events are quite different than Frank's and it seems like this will be merely a dark he said/she said kind of a story.
When Teddy, the Cockney manager, tells his side, that is where things start to get more confusing. An outsider looking into a relationship doesn't always know what is going on, but they certainly know how it looks and Teddy, more enmeshed than he ever wanted to be in the tumultuous marriage of his "talent" Frank and Grace, has unique insights into what happened to the trio, and why.
The fourth and final monologue is Frank again. Frank now seems like a different man than the one the audience was introduced to three scenes earlier. He is twisted, cowardly, self-delusional and far less charming than the man we met. With his final words, he brings the mysterious and darkly-humorous play to a close without giving away all of the emotional intensity and leaving the audience to try and muddle through what was left unsaid.
The Den Theater is small and very dark. It has a dozen risers and a stage the size of an average living room. It is intimate, and that serves this production very well.
When Grace lights her cigarette, the smell reaches the last row in sections. When Frank's face is lit strongly by the light, you can almost count the lines around his sad and confused eyes. As Teddy wanders around his shabby room, putting away Guinness after Guinness, you can see the humorous light shining from his twinkling eyes. The set is minimal, a banner announcing the name of the Faith Healer hangs for most of the play in the front of each location.
Because this is also a play about the class system at work in Great Britain, the accents were important and the actors nailed them. The Irish Faith Healer, the upper class solicitor wife and the Cockney manager all had their roles to play in the drama of faith healing among the poor, uneducated, ignorant Welsh and Irish farmers.
Each actor mimicked each other, as people can do who have spent years in each other's close company, just as families can do. This lent the feeling that they were not just three people in three different places, alone, but a family separated, but not apart.
Though dark and dealing with heavy subject matter, the warm, dry humor for which Irish plays are famous still squeaks out. A wry aside, an astute observation, or baldly stating the truth with irony is the bread and butter of Irish drama, and this play, though only 20-years-old, feels like a classic Irish drama, full of classic Irish humor.
Off-the-beaten-path, the Den Theatre's production of "Faith Healer" is deeply moving, well-staged and excellently acted. It is one of the strongest productions I have seen in a long time, and if the strength of the audience reaction was any gauge, I was not alone in thinking it is a must see.
"Faith Healer" runs through Jan. 20 at The Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago. For info or tickets, visit brownpapertickets.com.