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Heal thyself

Theatre Gael's thoughtful Healer can't cure the gloom

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Playwright Brian Friel has worked a kind of a miracle, writing an Irish play called Faith Healer that has almost nothing to do with religion. In America, particularly the South, faith healing is inextricably associated with evangelism, so it's a surprise that Ireland's Francis Hardy, the title character of Friel's play, is not a man of the cloth by any means.

Faith Healer can't entirely escape religious motifs, especially with some biblical symbolism near the end, but mostly the play removes God from the equation. Friel focuses more on themes of show business and strained relationships, and the faith that keep individuals in either, despite long odds. Theatre Gael offers a measured and intimate production of Faith Healer but nearly succumbs to the gloom of the material.

Author of Irish memory plays like Dancing at Lughnasa, Friel wrote Faith Healer in the late 1970s and gave it a monologue structure, in which the three characters have their say in turn. First on the stage is "The Fantastic Francis Hardy" himself (Bryan Davis), a rascally charmer who describes to the audience his career as an itinerant faith healer, traveling for decades with his cockney manager Teddy and mistress Grace.

The trio works almost exclusively in small towns in Wales and Scotland (though born in Ireland, Francis' aversion to his homeland is never quite explained). One of his pre- performance rituals is to intone guttural Gaelic town names like an ancient incantation, a recurring device echoed by the other characters. More interested in showmanship than spirituality, he still provides insight into a faith healer's audience and how they go to Francis less expecting to be cured than to be found incurable: "They were seeking not hope, but the elimination of hope."

Only when Grace (Monica Williamson) gets her time on the stage, and reveals the considerable amount of things that Francis left unmentioned, do we begin to glean what the play's about. She mentions, for instance, that she's Francis' wife, not his mistress, and that her husband's a compulsive liar. While Francis makes their poverty-stricken life sound romantic, Grace describes a miserable existence, acknowledging that he has a "magnificence" as a performer.

With Grace and Francis offering opposing views of their marriage, we hope that Teddy (John Stephens) will provide an objective opinion, but quickly realize he's not much more reliable. A lifelong promoter, ballyhoo is second nature to Teddy, whose all-purpose adjective is "fantastic!" Describing traveling acts like a bagpipe-playing whippet, Teddy finally brings some humor to the evening, even though he's also been heartbroken by his life with Francis and Grace.

There's a little of Rashomon in Faith Healer, with Friel revealing how untrustworthy subjective accounts can be. Teddy's testimony supports Grace more than Francis, but each offers strikingly different accounts of two faithful trips -- one in a village in Northern Scotland, the other at a pub in Ballybeg, Ireland. At the play's end, Francis returns for an epilogue speech, addressing points he'd earlier glossed over and filling in details at the end, including a climactic anecdote that evokes episodes from the New Testament, particularly the Garden at Gethsemane.

As Teddy, Stephens sports a bowtie, minuscule brush mustache and high-strung manner, interrupting himself and addressing the audience as "dear heart." Stephens uses Teddy's fussy, emotional qualities to make the role comic at first, and then more poignant later on (you can imagine Joel Gray giving a comparable performance). Given the state of both Teddy and Grace, Francis seems to be a healer who harms the people he's closest to.

Williamson may be a bit young as Grace, but her bitter cynicism and penetrating, red-rimmed eyes suggest the hardness of her years. Davis has both an ingratiating gift of gab and a melancholy about him -- he has one of those mouths that seem downcast at the corners, even when he's smiling. And with his prominent brow and chin, he's especially well cast: You can see him proving an arresting figure to the faithful.

Sally Robertson directs Faith Healer on the third and smallest stage at 14th Street Playhouse, and the dark, curtained set gives the show an almost oppressively dark and downbeat atmosphere. Still, low-key monologue shows like this benefit from being produced in close quarters, and Friel's threesome emerge as fully dimensioned, sympathetic figures unable to find a cure for the common life.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

Faith Healer plays through Feb. 10 at Theatre Gael, 14th Street Playhouse, 173 14th St., at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $12-18. 404-876-9762.

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