If the theater world were a dance, some plays would be belles of the ball: conventionally pretty, a bit pushy, used to being admired. Then there are those plays that manage, with their graceful, quiet ways, shy humor and peculiar beauty to make you fall in love. You emerge two hours later, entranced and a bit dazed, certain only that you have been transformed.
Molly Sweeney falls into this second category — as self-contained, unpretentious, yet remarkable as its title character. Irish playwright Brian Friel’s script follows three characters that take turns recounting the story of a blind woman who undergoes surgery to restore her sight, to unexpected results. Only the third production by Transport Theatre, resurfacing from a long hiatus since Judy’s Scary Little Christmas in 2006, Molly Sweeney shows us what good theater can and must do — invite us in, then slowly transfix, challenge and change us.
Linda Livingston, Transport’s co-founder, earned an L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation nomination for her performance in Wit, the company’s debut production. She is luminous here as Molly. Perhaps the afterglow of pneumonia, whose Christmas Eve onset delayed the original production in January, gives Livingston some of her radiance. Only 10 days recovered from a paralyzed vocal chord, she speaks in a throaty, musical Irish brogue of Molly’s neighbors, her friends, her husband, her father and how he taught her to recognize buttercups and baby blue eyes by touch in their garden.
Despite her easy musings, we come to see something very real hanging in the balance: the happiness and self-respect of a fine woman. Despite her gentle good nature, Molly recognizes it, too. She succumbs to bouts of vehemence, asking on the eve of her surgery, “How do they know what they are taking from me?”
Livingston’s castmates are marvelous as well. John Reinhart is phenomenal as Molly’s twitchy, madcap, energetic husband, Frank, an out-of-work Peace Corps type who relates his latest cheesemaking ventures with jet-lagged Iranian goats. Ronald Rezac excels as the refined Mr. Rice, a washed-up ophthalmologist goaded by hubris, who hopes to turn Molly’s surgery into a professional resurrection. “After all, what does she have to lose?” he asks. A great deal, as it turns out.
Fiddler Ray Dean Mize and 12-year-old vocalist Mimi Rize provide the score, with lilting, melancholy Irish ballads whose pure, clear notes pierce you right through. Director and set designer Jeff Rack has managed to turn the show’s tight venue, a room at the Clocktower Inn in downtown Ventura, into an intimate performance space that only enhances this delicate production. Bob Decker’s lighting design alternates between plunging the audience, like Molly, into total darkness, and illuminating the characters during their soliloquies with a single, sometimes blinding, spotlight.
The play grapples, perhaps predictably, with the relationship between seeing and understanding, asking whether the second requires the first. Even the blocking, with each actor remaining siloed in his or her own onstage universe, becomes a metaphor for the many ways in which these characters fail to perceive each other accurately. Or, as Mr. Rice observes, Molly seems to understand what she sees more than any of them.
Livingston has said she named the company for its itinerant nature, and true to form, this show will have a limited run as Transport continues to look for a permanent home in Ventura. We can only hope the company will be successful and that Transport’s homelessness won’t delay its next offering another four and a half years. After all, we need more theater like this in our lives — art that, with its simple, joyous nature, offers a new way of seeing the world.
Molly Sweeney, Transport Theatre, Clocktower Inn, 181 E. Santa Clara St., Fridays and Saturdays through May 28. Reservations are strongly encouraged. General admission $20; seniors and students $15. For details, visit www.transporttheatre.com.