Ralph Fiennes Is Faith ful To Brilliant Words of Friel

I love Brian Friel’s heart and soul, suffering though they are. Mr. Friel stands above the new generation of Irish dramatists, Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, and you have only to see his haunting and wonderful Faith Healer to understand why.

There is—to borrow a word from Mr. Friel about his own tortured hero—a magnificence about the play. Yet such are his storytelling gifts that we too easily label him another—yet another!—example of that tourist trap widely acclaimed as ‘‘splendid Irish eloquence.” His soul is more divided than that, and his poetic gifts cry out not to be glibly categorized or their point will be missed.

It’s often said that Faith Healer is a parable about a suffering artist, for its story concerns a man possessed by “a feud between himself and his talent.” The Irish faith healer Frank Hardy (Ralph Fiennes), who might be a con man, speaks of his inner demons and cursed self-doubt as well as those rare, God-given moments when life works wholly for him and becomes an exultation.

“And occasionally it worked—oh, yes, occasionally it did work … ,” he says of the times when he healed the sick and the miraculous appeared to happen. “I knew that for those few hours I had become whole in myself, and perfect in myself, and in a manner of speaking, an aristocrat, if the term doesn’t offend you.”

No offense taken. We worship aristocrats of talent every day of our lives—provided their talent is authentic. If Faith Healer is a metaphor for the tortured artist as playwright, however, Mr. Friel has some staggering, original thoughts about audiences.

“And the people who came—what is there to say about them?” the faith healer asks about the sick and the needy who came to him for a cure, an answer—some consolation. “They just sat there, very still, assuming that I divined their complaints … . Longing to open themselves and at the same time fearfully herding the anguish they contained against disturbance. And they hated me—oh, yes, yes, yes, they hated me. Because by coming to me they exposed, publicly acknowledged, their desperation.”

Who else writes like this? We listen to a Friel play as no other and at the Booth Theatre, where Faith Healer is playing to packed, awed houses, it’s a powerful testimony to Jonathan Kent’s production that you can scarcely hear a pin drop the entire evening. Then what were we all listening to so intently in our private, self-contained “disturbance” and “desperation”?

Not a parable of a tortured artist alone, surely! Not that old chestnut! If the lot of the poor artist were all Faith Healer is about, it would be a lesser, peculiar play and we wouldn’t be so rapt by it. It is about many things—the ravages of memory, the nature of fictional, hard lives, the Ireland that dreams beautiful romantic dreams and the Ireland that kills itself. But, above all, the play is about Mr. Friel’s most recurring theme. It’s about exile and exile from yourself, and therefore their reverse—the illusory shelter of home.

If you will, Faith Healer is about us—the self-doubt within us all and the yearning for consolation. As Seamus Deane pointed out aptly about the play, “The mediating agency is, as always, disappointment, but it is a disappointment all the more profound because it is haunted by the possibility of miracle and of Utopia.”

Unusually, the play is four monologues—the first and last spoken by the faith healer Frank—or “The Fantastic Frank Hardy,” as he’s billed like a traveling vaudevillian—his wife, Grace (Cherry Jones), and his cockney manager Teddy (Ian McDiarmid, who steals the show). In the usual way, I tend to run a mile from monologues. Yet all is mysteriously complete here, and epic.

The stories Mr. Friel weaves are terrible and even comic as each version of the events that led up to Frank’s return to Ballybeg and his preordained, brutal killing are told. The prodigal son foresees his own death when he realizes that his powers will fail him and the mob will tear him apart, and he “saw him and recognised our meeting: an open space, a walled yard, trees, orange skies, warm wind. And knew, knew with cold certainty that nothing was going to happen. Nothing at all.”

When Ralph Fiennes delivered those lines, his haggard face took on the hue of a death mask and I went cold. Yet I had been concerned at first that he would be too refined, too elegantly “poetic,” for the role of God’s soiled savior and con man who sleeps in ditches and dies nightly drenched in whisky. Since we’re all authors of our own fictions, I imagined an earthier version of Frank, with nicotine stains on his chewed fingers and a crumpled, stained suit. But I remembered that when Faith Healer was first produced in New York, James Mason—of all suave actors—played the role.

Mr. Fiennes proved excellent and furious in his terror, and his performance has stayed with me. He is nowhere more moving than when he ultimately embraces death like a welcoming shroud and Mr. Friel’s words conjure up an image of a world decomposing.

I regret that I felt Cherry Jones sentimentalized the role of the distraught, abused wife or mistress of the man “with such a talent for hurting.” I know this middle-aged woman, named Grace: She is bone tired, and tired of life. But these exceptionally demanding monologues need only to drop a fraction in temperature for even the finest of actors to go off the boil. Though the audience adored Ms. Jones just the same, she was a little below par at the performance I saw.

Described in the script as “indifferent to her appearance,” it didn’t help at all that she was costumed like a neat (and pretty) bank manager. The only general criticism I have of Mr. Kent’s admirably spare production is of the glamorized costumes. These characters who traveled on the road like renegades lived in a van or local dump! Their clothes were never new.

No matter that the smoking jacket the manager Teddy wears ought to be beaten with years and years of hanging alone in damp doss houses and fields. With Ian McDiarmid wearing it, we have a performance as good as one could possibly get. Mr. McDiarmid, whose yeoman work I know from England, has found a role that fits him like a glove.

“I’ll tell you something, dear heart,” Teddy confides with irresistible chirpiness. “Spend your life in show business and you become a philosopher.” At one point, Teddy mentions Laurence Olivier with a certain apt awe, and I would say that the veteran actor who’s playing him with the careful comb-over equals Olivier in one of his legendary character parts.

In his nimbleness, good humor and vast despair, Ian McDiarmid touches greatness. So does the play. Ralph Fiennes Is Faith ful To Brilliant Words of Friel