By Stanford Friedman

Netflix had a hit this season with its sci-fi adventure, 3 Body Problem. The title references the complications, in physics, of predicting the paths of three orbital bodies all moving within the gravitational pull of each other. Now, the Irish Repertory Theatre is offering a three body problem of its own with Molly Sweeney, Brian Friel’s 1994 drama which tracks the emotional and psychological pull of three human bodies as they complicate each other’s lives. Both science and fiction are involved, but no space ships. The challenge here for veteran director Charlotte Moore and her seasoned cast is to transport the audience while the play’s characters never speak directly to each other nor stray far from their chairs. Given these limitations, the dramatic action stays stuck on Earth, even as the performances soar.

The tale is largely inspired by To See and Not See, the Oliver Sacks case history of a blind man whose sight is restored after forty-five years, for better and for worse. Indeed, Friel’s text often comes across like a Sacks story, full of fascinating facts. But dramatized as three interwoven monologues, the work commits the sin of telling the audience what happens instead of showing it. The script makes for a great read but a passive night at the theater.

Molly (Sarah Street) is a woman in her early forties who has been blind since she was ten months old. Raised by a judge who drank and a nervous mother who failed to send her to a school for the blind, Molly nonetheless thrived in her own way, making friends and working as a massage therapist at her local health club in Ballybeg, Ireland. Her life becomes trickier when she meets her eventual husband, Frank (John Keating), who feels there must be a cure for her disability. Their consult with the town ophthalmologist, Mr. Rice (Rufus Collins), raises their hopes, surgery ensues and Molly suddenly finds herself in a partially sighted world that is wholly strange and ultimately overwhelming. 

All three characters, it turns out, have a certain blindness. Rice could not see that his marriage was falling apart, a condition that would deprive him of status, success and sobriety. Frank, meanwhile, could not see his way to a responsible career, always chasing “indiscriminate enthusiasms of the self-taught,” as Rice condescendingly puts it. And both fail to grasp what they are doing to Molly. “What has she to lose –nothing,” observes Rice. “How can they know what they are taking away from me,” bemoans Molly.

Street brings a quiet dignity to the complicated role of Molly, a character who is strongly independent even as she succumbs to the will of others and marries “for no very good reason at all.” Keating is the Irish Rep’s man for all seasons. Having played any number of fathers, sons and husbands over the years, here, in his 27th show for the company, he slips on this sad clown of a role like an old glove. And while we witness little proof of true love between Frank and Molly, we never doubt Rice’s love for his missing wife, thanks to Collins’ stirring portrayal of a broken-hearted man of science.

Though each actor is constrained to their own third of the stage, scenic designer Charlie Corcoran at least gives them chairs befitting their status: threadbare for Frank, padded and professorial for Rice, feminine and curved for Molly. But it is the construction of Friel’s language that ultimately makes the show worth a visit as he examines the differences “between seeing and understanding,” riffs on how the sighted take in life all at once while the blind must process everything sequentially through touch, and creates resonate parables like the one Frank relays about trying to save a pair of badgers by moving them from their endangered natural home only to have them return to “the one we’d destroyed with all our digging.”

 

Molly Sweeney – By Brian Friel, directed by Charlotte Moore.

WITH: Rufus Collins (Mr. Rice), John Keating (Frank Sweeney) and Sarah Street (Molly Sweeney).

Set design by Charlie Corcoran, costume design by Linda Fisher, lighting design by Michael Gottlieb and sound design by Hidenori Nakajo. Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., https://irishrep.org, 212.727.2737. Through June 30. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.