COMMANDING PRESENCE Tony Reilly as Frank Hardy.
The assonant, guttural names of old Welsh and Scottish villages — Aberarder, Aberayron, Llangranog, Llangurig, Abergorlech — return often to the mouths of the characters in Brian Friel's Faith Healer. The words are spoken in ritual fashion, serving now as incantation, now as balm or stimulant, now as a poison to be taken or purged. Frank Hardy (Tony Reilly), faith healer, chants them in the dark like a shaman or sorcerer as he opens Friel's richly written drama, in an excellent and affecting production by the American Irish Repertory Ensemble, under the direction of Daniel Burson.
In speaking these town names, Frank, his romantic partner Grace (Susan Reilly), and his manager Teddy (Will Rhys) conjure memories of the ramshackle traveling faith-healer show that the three once brought to ill and disfigured audiences all over Wales, Scotland, and finally, fatefully, Ireland. But they don't share their memories; indeed, their accounts are often at odds, from the question of who chose the act's theme song (Fred Astaire crooning "The Way You Look Tonight" — so surreally inappropriate that it's rather perfect) to whether or not Grace could and did bear Frank a child. Instead, we hear from each character alone, in monologue, removed in time and space from each other and from the events themselves. They talk haltingly toward a tragedy that occurred in one Irish village, and as their stories contradict each other, align briefly and breathtakingly, and then diverge again, Friel's script explores these characters, their relationships, and how memory — itself a sort of faith healing — is intimately dependent upon belief.
On a set that's bare but for a dozen sad wooden folding chairs and the act's poster — The Fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer, One Night Only — Mr. Reilly conveys both the sheer will and the wary, almost superstitious sensitivity of this arrogant man with the strange sometime gift. "I'd get so tense before a — performance," he tells us, tweaking his tone just enough to suggest the ambivalence of his act — part miracle, part con. Mr. Reilly is especially compelling when Frank, pacing and weaving amid the empty chairs, describes those people who come to see him. "They were a disturbed people," he muses, before his tone plummets, darkens: "And they hated me." His charisma and arrogance have force enough to submerge his own disturbances; we see barely a glimmer of what the faith healer might himself have forgotten or misremembered out of grief.
The trauma of Grace, on the other hand, is barely contained. Fitfully smoking, sipping whiskey from a teacup, Mrs. Reilly's stricken Grace is subsumed in a red-eyed, nervous anguish. Her agony comes on strong, but Reilly also moves gracefully through a range of emotional responses: Wistfulness about the "privacy" of Frank's gift; rage at her exclusion from it; abject sensuality in remembering how he took the stage when he was "on;" and helpless despair as she clutches at memories for which there remains no record.