The cast and crew of Faith Healer have taken the time to answer a few questions. A new production by JibJam Productions, the play is performed at 1st Existentialist Congregation of Atlanta. During the play each character describes the same event from their own perspective. Director Kyle Crew and actors Bryan Davis, Theo Harness and Lisa Blankenship discuss their attraction to the play, the venue, rehearsing via Skype and more.
What makes Faith Healer a captivating production?
Kyle Crew (Director): The incredible tapestry of the story and the language that Brian Friel uses to weave it is the real strength of Faith Healer. It’s beautiful and poetic, yet very earthy and human. And deceptively simple: three people tell their version of the same events. Sometimes they support one another, sometimes they contradict one another. The story that emerges, completed in the mind of the audience, is compelling.
Bryan Davis (Producer, Frank): Faith Healer has captivated me since I first read it. I performed this piece with Theatre Gael – artistic Director was John Stephens – ten years ago. Mr. Friel’s writing speaks to the listener like no other play write. He is not esoteric, and does not attempt to hide his meaning, nor does he try to deliver a message. It is a theater-goers piece though. It is not everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps not a good play for an ADD society such as ours, but it is a real treat if you can sit and smother yourself in the story and the words.
Theo Harness (Teddy): A well-cast and well-directed play which tells a universal story and whose setting and events relate to my rural and cross country cultural roots travelling the hills and valleys of sparsely populated, small and remote villages, with stops in country churches and country stores full of local clientele eager to size up and swap tales with itinerants, and to challenge their claims and conceits, certainly clangs with the resonance of the Southern mythology; and like Alice Walker, Joel Chandler Harris, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and especially, the experiences of that kind of faith in life are made palpable by Brian Friel.
Lisa Blankenship (Grace): The play is engaging in the truest sense of the word. I can’t imagine watching this play passively. Because of the disparity between the characters’ stories, the audience must necessarily form, or at least try to form, their own conclusions about what is truth and what is fiction. I say “try to form”, because if I look at the play objectively I’m not even sure myself who’s telling the truth. But as an actor, I have to assume my character is being honest. So there you go, folks – only believe Grace!
And I’m in love with the mystery of the play. There’s a particular miracle that all three characters seem to agree actually happened – even rational, orderly Grace. I like that Friel just puts that out there and doesn’t give you any easy explanations. I think even the most logical minds want to believe in magic. I know I do. But in everyday life, I’m about as rational as Grace. It’s only when I’m at the theatre that I can believe in magic for a little while.
What is the basic premise of the play?
Crew: Frank Hardy travels the back-country villages of Wales and Scotland, with his manager, Teddy, and his woman, Grace, passing himself off as a faith healer. The trouble is, sometimes he gets lucky, and something really happens. But what? The questions of doubt and faith that dog him lead to some serious trouble when he returns to Ireland.
Davis: The premise changes for me often. It as if I have to grow into it night after night. I read Hero With A Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell some 25 years ago. I found that I understood the book, but only up to a certain point. And I knew I didn’t understand it. With this play, I feel I do understand it, but when we rehearsed it, and when we perform it, something new always pops up…an aha, or a new understanding. Then, that very same understanding will change on a future night. The experience becomes something different. In may ways, I think that is one of the main premises of the play. In the case of the Campbell book, I think my lack of understanding was due to my state of maturity. With this play, I think the change in understanding is due more to perception than maturity.
What makes Hardy an intriguing character?
Crew: We’ve all known someone like Frank: someone who is smart and talented, but somehow lost in their own self, someone so magnetic and engaging that we become part of their being, even if that part is lies and mythology. And we’ve all been Frank, too: struggling with what to believe, deceiving ourselves, hurting others by design or by accident. And finally, having to face ourselves, where the truth lies.
Davis: Platitudes are so easy. Yet, I really do believe Mr. Friel created a character in Francis Hardy that has qualities that are universal. My unscholastic (Greek gods) sense tells me that Friel created many of the gods that are a hold of us all or that we individually make choices to invest in; not just for Francis Hardy, but for Grace Hardy and Teddy. I believe good plays make no judgement. Good plays throw verbal paint on a disappearing canvas and ask the actor and audience to fill in the gaps while they experience the dialog in person and, perhaps, after they leave.
Harness: Frank is the everyman who bas no faith in his emotions and no way to acknowledge and express them, all the while struggling with who he is and what his strange talent means-“bow they do it, how it works, what that sensational talent is, what it all means: believe me, they don’t know, and they don’t care, andeven if they did care, they haven’t the brains to analyze it.”
What part stands out the most to you?
Crew: Oh, that would be telling! The language, as I’ve said, is just a wonder. But there is an event that happens in the play, described to us three different ways by three different characters, and that event makes my heart stop every single time.
Davis: Teddy’s story of his testimony in the trial of the Irish Apaches. The specific line “….Gawd!!!!!.” He says it in reaction to telling the need of an English interpreter to tell the judge what the only proper Englishman in the place was saying! I only hear the line now, as I am back stage ready to come on for scene IV. My imagination is that he says this final punctuation with such glee. But also with such irony. A sort of summation of, perhaps, the piece. Look at this! Gawd! Sometimes that plea soup is hilarity stew, at other times it may be a questioning gruel, and at other times it is a bland oatmeal. A person standing in front of his memory or understanding of his life experiences, and wondering at it. Looking at it in absolute wonder; sometimes with hilarity, wonder, disgust, amazement, boredom….. Yet it is guaranteed we see our experiences differently than even our closest loved ones or friends. At minimum, miraculous.
Harness: Teddy’s description of Frank and Gracie-and thereby of all of us – the way they might have been all the time-like if there was never none of the bitterness and the fighting and the wettings and the bloody van and the smell of the primus stove and the bills and the booze and the dirty halls and that hassle that we never seemed to be able to rise above. Like away from all that, all that stuff cut out, this is what they could be.
Do you have a favorite moment in the play?
Davis: The favorite moments change for me, depending on what my emotional paint bucket is filled with when I am hearing the play. Perhaps this is it. My favorite moment is when I hear something again, and see something new. An example – late in the rehearsal process, I realized that Francis Hardy, when introducing himself at the top of the show, calls his parents “Jack and Mary Hardy.” In scene IV, dad becomes “Frank.” These simple recognitions are dead if left alone, however, because of our immersion in this material, it starts the actor into a longer thought process, a series of questions about the character, hopefully leading to a deeper understanding of the character to share with the audience. This is my favorite moment. The moments when little thoughts enter my brain as I learned and as I perform the play.
Of course, at times, when I am lazy, I become Mary Brigid – “How should I know what I’m saying to them Teddy. I just make sounds at them.” Yet even this begins the process of cooking. I think even Mary Brigid thought about her reply to Teddy, eventually.
Harness: Teddy’s delight in Gracie at the pub in Ballybeg: watching her talk and laugh and hearing her sing, and his realization that he has been cured of his guilt for his love of her by Frank himself and his understanding of their shared humanity.
Blankenship: It may not be the most profound moment in the play, but the story of the bagpipe-playing whippet never fails to delight me. That’s all I’m giving up.
What is the most challenging aspect of putting on the production?
Crew: Because the text of the play contradicts itself (that is, the characters contradict each other), exploring how to treat the different perspectives was very challenging, though, with this very astute cast, very rewarding, as well. Technically, we did some internet rehearsing with our Grace (Lisa Blankenship) while she was in New York. This presented some interesting challenges, as you can imagine, trying to convey the blocking and sense of space over a webcam. We were all very relieved to have her in the flesh finally!
Davis: We have chosen to break the fourth wall continually in the play. The audience plays many roles: they came to be healed, they are the jury, they are friends, they are confessors as well. I’m sure I am not aware of most of the roles the audience plays. When we first began experimenting with this connection between audience <-> actor <-> character <-> audience, it was nerve wracking. I have broken the fourth wall plenty of times in my career, yet not this much. Usually, when the wall is broken, you disappear again behind the curtain pretty quickly. There is of course tremendous protection provided the actor by way of the plot (loose in this case), the words, the story, the character; yet, the path between audience and actor is wider than in most plays.
As time goes on, this process becomes easier. Yet then “the questionings … the questionings” take hold. It gets dicey when you, the actor, get into the business of evaluating the audiences reaction to you. If this man that woman seems bored, disinterested, looks away, rolls the eyes what do you do? Is it my acting, my presentation, my space, my talent or lack thereof? Go down that road, and then comes the wreck. It may be even worse if you get into the business of patting yourself on the back if you invest too much in an audience member seemingly enjoying the play.
Harness: Having the audience with the story and with the actor as he tells it through many pages of monologue.
Blankenship: Oh yes, what Kyle said. The Skype rehearsals could be challenging, mostly because of technical difficulties. And it made memorization a bit more difficult because words are often tied to physical movements, and I was sitting on my sofa in Brooklyn during rehearsals. But I was also amazed at how much good work we could get done via the internet, and how quickly I fell head-over-heels for my cast mates.
How does the venue add to play’s performance?
Crew: I believe that the venue is crucial to the production. When we secured the First Existential Congregation (The Old Stone Church in Candler Park), I was just delighted. The very space echoes and harmonizes with the places and settings in the story, and when our Frank talks of going down to the people in the hall, and among them, he does just that. It’s a very neat marriage of the text to the performance space.
Davis: I live near the stone church. I pass it every day actually as I drive home, or take our children to school. An African American congregation, which still exists today, built the church in the late teen’s, early 1920’s. Their church was burnt down. The congregation hewn their own granite and built their new church themselves; they built a church out of stone that couldn’t be burnt down. This congregation still exists at the corner of Wrenwood Place and Hardee Place, located at the south entrance to the Edgewood shopping center.
I think the age of the building attracted us. You can imagine the Faith Healing performance happening at a building like this, at least of this age. The buildings in Wales and Scotland were probably a lot older in fact. Francis Hardy describes the buildings they performed in as ‘shabby, shabby, bleak, derelict.” This church does not fit that description. The building is very nice and beautiful. Yet the age of the space lends tremendously to this play. The wainscoting, creaky wooden floor, tin ceiling, expansive, yet tiny place becomes a character in itself.
Harness: The absolute reality of the physical space, and the sequence of leaving the car and entering up those long steep steps, and getting to the top, and entering the world-wide, mythical old Methodist hall, with a nearby field, and two ancient wooden doors to fling open.
Blankenship: I love working in non-traditional spaces, and in this case, we could not have been luckier. The church is so beautiful in its simplicity. You can almost believe you’re in a town hall or a village church somewhere in the Welsh countryside.
What do you hope that the audience will take away from the production?
Crew: Well, naturally, I hope that our audience is enriched by the language of the play, and enjoys the beautiful writing. But the play itself rewards a keen ear and invites the audience to fill in the blank spots in the story and to wrestle themselves with the questions and contradictions it poses. My dearest hope is that these characters will live on in the minds of our audience, and that afterwards from time to time, they will revisit the denizens of Faith Healer.
Davis: I hope the audience member’s reaction can be summed in one word: “Fantastic!” Then after that, I hope the reaction ranges from, “I enjoyed that immensely,” to thoughts during the following week about the play, to recommending it to others to see.
Harness: The way that all our lives and all our humanity, and coming to know who we are is a struggle for meaning and for faith in that meaning and for the healing grace of contentment that comes from that faith and that every human being has his own responsibility for his own story of that same struggle.
What play or musical have you seen recently that moved you? Why?
Davis: I have been on a film and television kick of late.I have taken a liking to a Canadian show called “Intelligence.” You can get it on Netflix. Also Modern Family, House, Lillyhammer, Life on Mars, The Descendants, the new incarnation of Battlestar Gallactica. I watch an episode after the children go to sleep on my iPad. My wife and I have a date night every so often. We went to see The Descendants. When we married, 2003, I struck a deal with my wife that I would do one show a year maybe, if time permitted. While married I did Requiem for A Heavyweight with Savage Tree, and Love Jerry with Actors Express. Those were the last two theater pieces I have seen (or worked in), and that was from the stage. And they both moved me deeply. Since then, I have been concentrating on seeking commercial jobs; TV, movies, industrials, voice overs. This allows me to be with my family in the evenings more than if I pursued theater like I did pre-marriage.
And of course, this play moves me as well. Speed the Plow at Actors Express years ago still strikes me as the most engaging theatre piece I have seen. Avery Brooks as Paul Robeson, Patrick Stuart’s Christmas Carol and Othello are a few of my other favorites. Gosh, Aida and Jesus Christ Superstar at the Alliance. Man and Superman, Oleana at Actors Express. Marvin’s Room at Horizon.
Harness: The Georgia Shakespeare Company’s production of The Glass Menagerie because there was Amanda Wingfield as the mother who was dedicated to the struggle to care for her children while she could, and to prepare them to take up their own struggle when they must, and in the face of all the “bittemess and the bills and the booze and the dirty halls, and that hassle that we never seemed to be able to rise above, she knew what they all could be.
Blankenship: Jerusalem on Broadway. Mark Rylance’s performance reminded me of something I occasionally forget: how uplifting, how completely transportive theater can be. And in that play, like this one, the main character makes extraordinary claims about his own abilities. You are essentially asked to believe in myth and magic, and the pay-off is huge.
Are there any traditions or events from this production that you would like to share?
Crew: Sometimes big, loquacious lines from a play are the most memorable, and are quoted on into the ages. For me, the simple, honest way our Teddy says,”Fantastic” (a favorite word of his), will live on, and when I here it henceforward, it will always bring me back to this play.
Davis: Lisa Blankenship lives in Brooklyn, NY. Kyle Crew had worked with her some 30 years ago while in college and had reconnected with her via Facebook in the last several years. He suggested we hire Lisa for Grace. We did. Because she lives in NY, she rehearsed via Skype. It worked far better than I had imagined. The structure of the show allowed for this. Lisa would sit in on rehearsals for Theo/Teddy and Frank/me as well. We would put my mac laptop in the audience, make the Skype call, and she would watch us work. And Theo and I would watch her work on the screen as well. She made such an impact on the screen, through the dropped signals, the dropped video, the delayed video and sound, my expectation of seeing her in person was very high. She surmounted that height and goes far beyond it. This was really exciting for me, and I think for all of us.
Blankenship: Kyle continually harassing me about two words I transpose every night. As Grace would say, that’s, “The most persistent memory of them all. The most persistent and most agonizing.” Seriously, one of my favorite things about this production is a ritual that came about out of necessity. Because of some restrictions of the space (and it seems this is the kind of thing I deal with in every small off-Off-Broadway theater in New York too), in order to make my entrance, I have to actually leave the “green room” and walk outside the building to get to the stage right entrance. And every night, Theo, who plays Teddy, escorts me. And I think I’ll always remember those brief walks fondly.
For tickets to Faith Healer, visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/221329.