Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer,” the story of an itinerant mountebank, Francis Hardy, who might, indeed, be gifted with the power to heal by faith, his wife Gracie, and his producer/manager Teddy is told in a series of dramatic monologues, and is considered to be an exceptional challenge for the actors. Indeed, it is really a sort of Mount Everest for actors, a play that can soar mightily but makes it mighty difficult to achieve such heights. In its first production, it starred no less an actor than James Mason in the title role, in a performance that was not greeted as a success. Subsequent revivals have fared much better, and some productions have achieved the status of legend.
Which brings us to the present production, starring members of the San Francisco Actors’ Theatre, a company known to take on some of the greatest acting challenges, often with notable success.
The role of Francis Hardy is in the more than capable hands of Chris Phillips, an actor whose performances are habitually hailed as “great,” and who works here close to the top of his form. His Hardy is a man who feels himself in every way inadequate, who simply cannot imagine why he, of all people, should be given the ambivalent and—far worse—unreliable gift of healing, and who is puzzled and even hurt by the unrelenting loyalty and adoring love of his wife Grace and manager Teddy. Phillips wisely chooses to underplay Francis’s histrionic gifts, focussing instead on his complex inner life. It is a fascinating performance, full of subtlety. One might wish, though, for more flashes of the charisma which is so often described by the other characters but is kept carefully buried in Phillips’s rendition. The result of that choice makes for a performance that is, perhaps, less thrilling than it might be, but which is never, for a moment, dishonest or dull.
As Grace, Rachel Klyce does not, by contrast, hide any of her light under a bushel. Her dramatic thrust is at full throttle through moment after moment, and leaves us emotionally spent and breathless just from the listening. She, too, however, is never dishonest or playing merely for effect.
As Teddy, the bottom-of-the-heap producer for Francis’s performances, Keith Phillips is both convincing and funny, capturing the characters’ love for theatrical anecdote, and his love, even obsession, for the Hardys. He manages to suggest, beneath Teddy’s music hall hamminess, a man who has had an encounter with the divine and been changed for it.
The Phillips brothers (who play Francis and Teddy) are the founders of the San Francisco Actors’ Theatre, a company which ably carries on a direct line of tradition from the Group Theater and the Actors’ Studio, and their special expertise in emotionally strong performance is very much in evidence in ‘The Faith Healer.’ Rachel Klyce has performed with the company many times over several years and is also a master of this brutally honest approach to acting.
Besides taking us on an emotional roller coaster ride through this series of monologs, the actors capably tell the story of these lives, which is full of interesting twists and surprises.
This “Faith Healer” lives up to its reputation as a spectacular showcase for exceptional acting, and these three members of the SF Actors’ Theatre definitely deliver.
“Faith Healer” continues at The Phoenix Theatre through December 6th. For further information, click here.
Rating: **** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Faith Healer” by Brian Friel. Presented by The Phoenix Arts Association. Director: Chris Phillips.
Frank Hardy: Chris Phillips. Grace Hardy: Rachel Klyce. Teddy: Keith Phillips.