It’s an age-old adage that the grass is always greener on the other side. Envy is a routine emotion; we always want what we don’t, or can’t, have. But Brian Friel’s play about a young family in Ireland presents the case for someone else’s insistence on your deficiency and the untold consequences of imposing envy on someone else.
Molly is blind (Grace Naoum) and also very happy. She’s confident and independent, has friends and a job at a health centre, and recently married Frank (Matt Abotomey) in a whirlwind romance. While she is still troubled by a difficult childhood with a very ill mother, Molly is thriving. If only her new husband saw it that way. Frank has a saviour complex. After a long series of failed projects including plans in various African countries to “fix [their] economy”, Frank has turned his attention to Molly’s disability, insisting that if there is any possibility of her seeing, they must take the chance. As such, Molly and Frank meet Mr Rice (Yannick Lawry), a once highly regarded ophthalmologist who now lives in obscurity after the failure of his marriage years ago. Together, Frank and Mr Rice attempt to fix Molly’s blindness, ultimately robbing her of her security, health, and happiness.
Director Hailey McQueen explained in a recent interview with Night Writes that she hoped audience members would see how the play questions notions of insight and understanding, referring to a refrain in the script that seeing is not the same as understanding. In many ways the script particularly focuses on the boundary between seeing and blindness both as symbolism and in medical terms. In jargon and philosophy the script is rather dense with the three characters passing the burden of narration around alternately.
Perhaps to allow room for the weighty monologues, the production design was simple and sparse. The staging included four wooden benches and some tree stumps decorated in flowers to represent the family gardens Molly learnt how to navigate the world in. Sound design by McQueen and Natalie Low was gentle with bird calls that were also supported by a natural, warm lighting design from Dany Akbar.
Naoum plays Molly as an intense but reserved young woman who keeps her cards close to her chest. Even as she is battered around by her husband and Mr Rice, she maintains an air of control. On the other hand, Frank is overly enthusiastic and imposing with an aggravating impulse to insert his autodidactic ideas into every conversation. Naoum and Abotomey have a sweet dynamic in their brief interactions together and Abotomey does lend a certain charm to an otherwise unlikeable character. Lawry as Mr Rice is a surprisingly interesting watch because of the way Lawry gives the uptight ophthalmologist an air of unexplored depths, mysterious motivations that are intriguing and then gone like a puff of smoke. All three actors respond well to the absences in Friel’s script and the rapid changes in tone throughout the monologues.
Despite their desires to “help” Molly, Frank and Mr Rice’s attitudes and actions are sinister and unsettling because of the underlying belief that Molly and her disability need to be fixed. But this narrative is in no way surprising given the ableism deeply embedded in our society as it caters to non-disabled people. It’s only disappointing to see disability once again being used as a metaphor to inspire non-disabled people; to remind us how good we have it. Friel’s script was inspired by a story written by Oliver Sacks, which was itself inspired by the real-life experience of a man named Virgil who Sacks heard about secondhand from a friend. In Molly Sweeney, we see how Virgil’s life and his relationship with his disability have been extracted from him, abstracted into a cautionary tale for non-disabled people, and with Virgil’s voice completely removed.
This practise of using disabled people’s stories is cemented in the structure of Friel’s script. While the play is entirely about Molly’s disability, her voice is only one third of the narration. Frank and Mr Rice are given equal space and time to air their grievances, pontificate and speculate, and describe to the audience Molly’s experience. While the play is entirely about Molly’s disability, most of it isn’t about Molly. Which is a problem in an industry (or a country) where disabled people are still repeatedly denied equal and fair representation. Is it too much to ask to see disability on Australian stages not as inspiration-porn or an experiment or a project but as characters in their own right?
The density and emotional complexity of Molly Sweeney were carried deftly by the cast and there were moments of true tenderness but the isolated monologues and questionable premise made it difficult to fully embrace.
Molly Sweeney is running at Flight Path Theatre from December 8th – 13th
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