By Kimberly Rau
The Gamm started 2023 with Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer,” a poignant and powerful piece that highlights everything the theater does well.
Francis Hardy is a faith healer who travels Great Britain in a van with his partner Gracie and manager Teddy, bringing his “performance” to remote villages and towns. Sometimes he works miracles, sometimes not, and his ability to draw a crowd is equally inconsistent, but still he travels on, bound by some inner drive to…what, exactly? Heal people, but to what end? He doesn’t pray, instead chanting names of fallen Welsh towns like a mantra, or play hymns, instead relying on the same old secular tune to serve as backdrop for his ministry. In a trio of monologues, we hear his story, first from him, then from Gracie and Teddy.
Francis almost sells the audience on his version of events, and we’re sympathetic, until Gracie starts talking (and, rather impiously, drinking and smoking). It becomes clear that Francis’ greatest gift might be spinning lies, not healing the sick. And then Teddy takes the stage, and we learn that Gracie isn’t the most reliable narrator, either. The tragic end is projected from the start, but still devastating when the moment comes.
It’s a show that’s heavy on the Biblical imagery (fitting for the subject, of course), starting with the entire premise of a wandering miracle worker who is rejected by his own people. There are more subtle references as well, including one moment where Francis laments that of the 10 people he heals at one show, only one returns to give his thanks. At one point Gracie recalls yelling “physician, heal thyself!” while quarreling with Francis. And though each person is telling the same story, there are contradictions sprinkled throughout each iteration, all of which the respective narrator holds out like gospel truth. Never interacting with one another on stage, the characters behave as though theirs is the only version of the story we’ll ever know.
So what’s the truth? In the end, all we know is that everyone agrees Francis has some sort of supernatural talent. Even the newspapers concur. Unfortunately, his talents aren’t enough to save either himself or Gracie, who end up martyrs under the banner of the “Fantastic Francis Hardy.”
Donnla Hughes makes her Gamm directorial debut, already having established herself as a powerful actor on their stage. Her guidance and treatment of the daunting script makes two and a half hours fly by.
Tony Estrella plays the tortured, self-doubting faith healer whose coping mechanism is turning a blind eye to the suffering of those who love him most while showboating miracles to a wary public. Estrella hits every nuance of this plagued character, trusting the audience to find Francis’ humanity but never letting them get too sympathetic. Jeanine Kane is magnificent as Gracie, Francis’ partner who expends herself taking care of Francis. Tragically, Gracie realizes what a shell she has become in his name, bearing the weight of her personal tragedies alone. Estrella and Kane have always had strong chemistry in shows together. It turns out their characters’ connection is palpable even when they never physically share the space.
Finally, Brandon Whitehead is the affable, open-book former manager Teddy, who attempts to be pragmatic and businesslike, but can’t help showing how much he has cared for each of the acts he’s managed. It is Teddy who gives us the most coherent narrative, and it is Teddy who has the most heartbreaking performance as a result. Whitehead is perfect for this role.
Told on a barebones set with a plain platform thrust and a stack of chairs off to one side, with a small cast and not much in the way of special effects, it would be easy to underestimate this play at first glance. Don’t. This show is beautiful and complex, its simplicity as much an illusion as Francis the great healer himself. It would be a shame to miss it.
“Faith Healer” runs through Jan. 29 at The Gamm Theatre, Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at gammtheatre.org or by calling 401.723.4266. Masks are now optional unless specifically indicated for a certain performance.