A set with gray curving stonelike walls. A man sits rear on the left in shadow, while a woman sits in light on the right, her face in partial profile.
Robert Kauzlaric and Carolyn Kruse in Molly Sweeney at Irish Theatre of Chicago Credit: Michael Brosilow

Inspired in part by Oliver Sacks’s 1995 New Yorker essay “To See and Not to See,” Brian Friel’s 1996 play in monologues, Molly Sweeney, shares Sacks’s ability to translate the medical into the metaphysical. It’s also a natural successor to Friel’s 1979 Faith Healer, which also unfolds as three monologues involving two men and one woman.

The healer in Molly Sweeney is an alcoholic opthamologist, Paddy Rice—once a rising star in the field, but now divorced and in exile in Ballybeg, the fictional town in Donegal that serves as the setting for many of Friel’s plays. The title character is a woman blind since the age of ten months, whom Rice believes he can restore to at least some semblance of sight. Molly’s husband, Frank, who, in Rice’s sneering phrase, has all “the indiscriminate enthusiasms of the self-taught,” sees his wife as another project of sorts, perhaps not that far removed from his abortive attempt to raise Iranian goats on a remote Irish island. 

Molly Sweeney
Through 5/8: Thu-Sat 7 PM, Sun 4 PM; no show Sun 4/17, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, irishtheatrechicago.org, $40 ($35 students and seniors).

The key theme threading through all their stories, which comes through with clean and sorrowful precision in Siiri Scott’s staging for Irish Theatre of Chicago, is that seeing someone clearly requires far more than ophthalmic intervention. Carolyn Kruse’s Molly, raised by a judge father and a mother who was in and out of mental institutions, never attended a school for the blind, but she seems happy enough working at a health club as a massage therapist; her sense of touch and smell have given her a way into the world that is manageable. But persuaded by Frank (Matthew Isler), and prodded by Rice (Robert Kauzlaric), she agrees to the operation. 

It’s not Molly’s blindness that’s the problem; it’s that the men around her cannot see her as much more than a problem to be solved. Even her beloved father, who gave her a love of flowers by helping her “see” the garden behind their house, failed her by trying to keep her to himself, molding her in his ideals. Rice says of Molly before the surgery, “What has she got to lose?” As it turns out, almost everything.

In some ways, Friel’s story is similar to Daniel Keyes’s novel Flowers for Algernon, though the subject of that story is a young man with intellectual disabilities, not blindness. But in the same way that Keyes’s Charlie Gordon finds his relationships with others shifting irrevocably once an experimental surgery (temporarily) raises his IQ, Molly finds that Rice’s operation has subtracted more from her world than it’s given. The Molly at the end of the play is far removed from the woman who, the night before the operation, dances exuberantly around the friends gathered in her house, or the one who helps us understand the pure joy of swimming. 

Kruse’s Molly is the sympathetic heart of the show, as Friel intended. But as the three come closer and closer to understanding what has happened to Molly (and in Rice and Frank’s cases, their culpability and selfishness), a sense of clamminess, aching loss, and regret pervades the story, with flashes of sharp-elbowed wit and poetry threaded throughout. Kauzlaric lays bare the self-loathing that seems to seep out of Rice’s pores right along with the booze, while Isler’s Frank looks even more little-boy-lost at the end than at the beginning. Jesse Baldinger’s set in the Chopin basement theater places curvilinear gray rock walls with benches around the stage. The characters are trapped in these ancient battlements, unable to fully connect with each other, or to fully understand how hope turned to regret so terribly fast.