Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Contemplative "Molly Sweeney" scientifically explains sight

Jenni Taggart and Dara Lillis in Molly Sweeney (Michael Brunk)
Molly Sweeney
KTO Productions
(at TPS 4, Seattle Center Armory)
Through October 24, 2015

Playwright Brian Friel was considered a prolific writer of plays. His range was wide, as were his interests, but often he set his story in the town of "Ballybeg" (from the Irish Baile Beag, meaning "Small Town"). KTO Productions was in rehearsal for Molly Sweeney, one of Friel’s more contemplative plays, when he died on October 2nd. Seattle audiences were treated to a lovely production of his Dancing at Lughnasa at the Seattle Rep in 2010.

Molly Sweeney, as a play, is a bit challenging, and one must bring patience to let it unfold. But if you allow the play to work its magic, you will get a lot to think about on the way home.

The named subject is a woman (Jenni Taggart) who has been blind since her first year of life and is content, well-adjusted and happy in her life. Technology and medicine have caught up with her condition after 40 years and her new husband (Dara Lillis) loves the idea that surgery might allow her to see again. The doctor, Mr. Rice (Doug Knoop), admits in an early monologue that he is partly motivated by acclaim and reputation to see if he can restore long unused sight.
The dialogue is all to the audience. It’s sprightly delivered and well-directed by Yvonne Velez. But little of the acting involves the interaction between characters. It’s just three chairs and three people talking.

Each character is fully realized. Taggart as Molly has a great smile, communicating an enormous zest for life – at first. She seems to shrink as the play goes on, and aspects of life change in unexpected and disappointing ways. Lillis as Frank Sweeney easily conveys a nervous, highly questing man of intelligence, who seems to as easily give up a direction once he’s bored with it after he obsessively mines it for interest. Knoop as the doctor conveys the right mix of a professional, objective and apart, with the mixed up emotions of doing something that might make him famous.

Friel based the play on an essay by Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist (who coincidentally died in August), who wrote about a man similarly situated, blind since toddlerhood. Embedded in those of us who see all the time, the idea that someone could be content not seeing is a bit astonishing to us. In the play, Frank says his wife has “nothing to lose” by undergoing the operations to restore her sight. That is the crux of the subject matter – what does she lose?

I’m hinting at an outcome that is less than ideal. In other words, what she has to lose turns out to be a lot. And part of what makes this play topically appropriate for these days is that this lack of comprehension on our part for what a sightless person has to lose is rooted in the privilege of seeing. We impose our belief in the benefits of sight on someone who has not just adjusted well, but flourishes without it.

The play does go into some of the reasons for why someone might not be able to “see” immediately after getting bandages off. This may bog the play down a bit, but it is crucial to understanding how the brain works. For those with a scientific bent, this play will be like candy! Do give it a chance to win you over.

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