ARTS

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January 23, 2007

Faith Healer’s excellent showmanship gives audience the razzle dazzle

While the Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park is a limited space, director Mikhael Tara Garver of Uma Productions has made the most of it and then some in her production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. Instead of entering through the theater, the audience is led by crew members through a back alley to the cramped basement, just as you would to attend the services of a real Irish faith healer. That introduction makes the makeshift stage and seating all the more authentic, and if you can ignore the Chicago hipster audience, it sets the mood for the play perfectly.

Faith Healer is a classic of contemporary theater and has recently been brought back into the spotlight by a successful Broadway revival starring Ralph Fiennes and Cherry Jones. Garver has given the play a fantastic, remarkably professional production that belies its humble venue. While the set is used effectively, Garver’s greatest accomplishment comes from making full use of her actors potential.

The play, a series of four monologues delivered by three characters, is masterful particularly for the interaction and contrast between the characters takes on the events and for the emotions which all three discuss. What Frank (Chris Hainsworth) says about his relationship with his mistress Grace (Danica Ivanicek) or his manager Teddy (James Joseph) may not be what Grace or Teddy believes. We hear stories of Grace being barren, of Teddy’s career managing dogs before Frank, of Frank’s struggles with his parents, and of the highs and lows in Frank’s success in faith healing. The same stories become constantly updated and put into a larger perspective with each passing monologue. In fact, the monologues mesh so well that they give a better understanding of the characters and narrative than a dialogue-based play could provide.

Although Frank is the title character and the only one with two monologues, the stars of the performances have to be Ivanicek and Jospeh. Frank’s introductory monologue does not imply the instability that Ivanicek immediately insinuates, and we see her struggle, and ultimately fail, to talk her way out of her trapped relationship with Frank. Her performance is a remarkable display of femininity, repression, and neurosis, and Ivanicek can change the meaning of a line with the slightest twitch of her face. Joseph, meanwhile, displays remarkably convincing Cockney showmanship, providing a comical element that does not at all seem shallow when dealing with the tragedies the play unfolds.

Hainsworth’s performance does not compare to those of the rest of the cast. However, though it is not nearly as perfect, as an actor he clearly understands his character and maintains a cool confidence crucial to Frank’s character. Although we can see how he could easily acquire someone’s trust, it’s also clear that we are not quite sure of his motivations. In his first monologue, this seems to violate his main strength as a character; how could anyone trust a man who has such a sinister side?

Of course, Frank is not trying to heal us; he is talking about his life, which leads to another great strength of Faith Healer. We are faced with a man who is discussing his life with remarkable clarity, and we immediately accept this relationship with the character. By the second act, however, the circumstances of his presentation become murkier and even a bit supernatural. When Frank delivers his final monologue, it concludes as a message from beyond the grave. This deception, while not really a secret, makes Faith Healer one of the most creatively structured plays of the last century, maintaining a subtlety possible only in theater.

The play’s writing is so crisp and immediate that even the most casual theatergoer can appreciate it, and considering how strong the performances are in a largely actor-driven play, Uma Production’s Faith Healer is already one of the highlights of the winter season of Chicago theater. That such an exceptional production can come in such a small space from an unheralded theater company is a perfect example of the unique, bottom-up nature of Chicago’s vibrant theater scene. While Broadway in Chicago is experiencing unprecedented levels of success, it would be a shame if the large Loop productions eroded one of America’s most inspiring artistic business models. Even so, if Uma keeps putting out productions like this one, not even Wicked can prevent it from becoming one of Chicago’s elite theaters.