Jonathan Smoots and Colleen Madden in American Players Theatre's <i>Molly Sweeney</i>
If you haven't made the drive to Spring Green for an evening at American Players Theatre, you're missing a precious rite of summer. There's the long, sprawling ride up Highway 14. Time to gaze out at green fields and look forward to theater as a full-fledged event. Then there's the outdoor amphitheater, quaint pavilions and free, open-air grills inviting you to fire up your own pre-performance meal. While APT is known for its Shakespearean repertory, its Touchstone Theatre provides an alternative indoor experience. All of the charm. None of the bugs.
Even if Hamlet isn't your thing, this season's Molly Sweeney (through Sept. 28) just might be. This play by Brian Friel is composed of monologues written for three actors, which tell the story of a blind Irish woman rendered mostly sightless at a young age. Molly (Colleen Madden) is far from discouraged by her blindness. She's confident, ebullient and bold, sucking up life's tactile wonders with every pore. That is until her husband, the overly enthusiastic Frank (David Daniel), decides she'd be better off with sight. He persuades a local, troubled doctor, Mr. Rice (Jonathan Smoots), to take on her case. After all, Frank reasons, what's Molly got to lose?
As it turns out, a whole lot.
Both men are circumspect, pursuing Molly's corrective surgery for their own motivations. The doctor wants to restore his magnificent, lost career. The husband wants yet another focal point for his overblown passions. The play addresses questions about the true nature of disability, and how seeing is related to knowing. Molly's opening monologue, for instance, recounts a story of how her father taught her to "see" his garden through using her other senses. He charmingly compares her to a blue-eyed bud, a flower she later discovers once she can see, isn't all that pretty anyway.
With a cast this small -- and a staging that fixes them inside the confines of their own chairs -- strong performances are a must. APT's repertory cast doesn't disappoint. All performances are solid, but David Daniel is electric as Molly's walking Wikipedia of a husband, Frank. I looked forward to each of his monologues, which he approached with the vigor of a pouncing Siberian tiger. He brings bright humor, not just depth, to his role.
Director Kenneth Albers uses stage elements to emphasize the seeing vs. not-seeing themes of the show. He provides occasional time in darkness and sets his actors in front of a backdrop of what Molly "sees": horizontal "blinds" that look out on a blurry black-and-white garden that post-surgery is more colorful and nuanced. Albers quotes Paul Simon: "Hello darkness, my old friend." Darkness is Molly's chosen companion; it's the country where she fits best. In the sighted world, she's an exile. She's lost far more than she's gained.