Review: Molly Sweeney

Heidelberg Theatre Company
21 April to 6 May

By Lucas Ioppolo

For my second venture to Heidelberg Theatre Company this year, I was lucky enough to attend the opening night of their revival of Brian Friel’s 1994 play Molly Sweeney. In the art of theatre, a play or musical is meant to either entertain the audience or get the audience thinking and with this production, we were granted a chance to witness a class on Psychology 101 as we dive right into the mind of a legally blind individual who’s comfortable life is turned upside down by both her husband who believes she could only feel complete when her sight is restored and her eye surgeon who wishes to restore his own career through her surgery. Told entirely through monologues, Molly’s story was an immersive, intelligent and intellectual tale with many underlying themes and I can safely say it succeeded in penetrating our minds so we could gain a new perspective on the way we see the world in our own heads and that seeing does not necessarily mean believing. 

Throughout this psychological drama, two women were able to lead the way throughout the play’s run time and they were the play’s director and leading lady respectively. Originally directing Heidelberg’s first production of Molly Sweeney when it debuted on their stage in 2000, Joan Moriarty made a graceful return to the director’s chair to bring Molly’s story to life once again and in the process, continued the legacy left behind by the play’s writer Brian Friel after his death in 2015. With the set comprising of just a wall backdrop and three chairs on three separate slightly elevated platforms, Moriarty’s vision this time around felt like each of the characters were being interviewed on shows like 60 Minutes through its monologue format and it therefore, granted the theatre patrons permission to actually visualise the story for themselves rather than having the picture painted for them. At times, this can be a risky move in theatre but sure enough, this format managed to keep the audience engaged from start to finish and with metaphors for darkness and light, comfort and self-worth a plenty, Moriarty’s current take on the show was tantalising and truthful to a T and provoked every thought known to man in all the best ways possible. To head the production onstage, the uber-talented Alexandria Page was cast in Molly Sweeney’s title role and it soon became clear to have been correct casting choice as Page constantly faced Molly’s challenges head on, discovered her own individuality as well as Molly’s and courageously stepped out of her comfort zone to showcase both Molly’s strength and self-consciousness. For her portrayal of an independent, legally blind Irish woman who is driven to madness when she starts to become reliant on those around her while learning to see after the removal of her cataracts before rediscovering the person she once was by herself, Page could be showered in accolades for a dramatic turn that bordered method acting in one of the most sensual and stimulating theatrical performances of the season and returned to drama after back to back comedies with such ease and elation. 

In her tale, the life and times of Molly Sweeney were impacted by two men for both better and worse, her husband Frank Sweeney and her eye doctor Mr. Rice, who were both portrayed by two multi-talented actors whose reputations in the community precede them through their creative abilities. In the role of an overly enthusiastic husband who yearns for the day his beloved wife can see clearer but finds himself unable to deal with the burdens and flees in shame to go on his own journey of self-discovery, Matt Biscombe continued to display his notoriety for making every character he plays his very own as if the role was written especially for him. Known more in Melbourne for his performances in the opera and musical theatre scenes, the classical baritone returned to his humble theatre roots which he had established in Geelong, his hometown, to play the role of Frank Sweeney and his dedication to his craft was on fully disclosed display for a new type of audience in Melbourne’s theatre circuit. The role may not have been as dark or gloomy as his previous roles as Gomez in The Addams Family and Grantaire in Les Mis√©rables, but Biscombe still managed to utilise the darkness he encapsulated in those roles to inform his character’s direction in the play’s second act while giving Molly’s story a sense of illumination with his humour in the first act and again near the end of the play, finding the perfect balance of light and darkness one needs to play this role and achieving a sense of duality to result in a performance that was enticingly excitable and exhilarating. Meanwhile, for his portrayal of an alcoholic doctor who wishes to use Molly’s surgery to restore his formerly glorified career after the dissolution of his marriage due to his wife’s abandonment and infidelity but ends up doing more harm than good mentally on both his patient and himself, Chris McLean brought the show a sense of scholasticism and sovereignty which one needs to successfully play the role of Mr. Rice. Like director Joan Moriarty, McLean was involved in Heidelberg’s original production of the play in 2000, playing the role of Frank Sweeney, and even after twenty-five years, his love for Molly Sweeney was still going strong even in a different role and this time around, he delivered a performance filled with both grandeur and gall to efficiently explore both sides of Mr. Rice’s psychie and make his role a memorable one in the process while getting to demonstrate his decades worth of experience to give yet another acting masterclass to the people of not only Heidelberg but to all of Melbourne. 

Molly Sweeney can be interpreted in many ways as I believe it leaves the audience to decide what was real or not in Molly’s newfound clearer vision, whether Mr. Rice got what he wanted for his career back and whether Frank found what he was looking for in his journey of self-discovery, but what can be said is that each character comes full circle and Heidelberg Theatre Company successfully portrayed that with their revival of Brian Friel’s masterpiece and it managed to keep you thinking long after the final bow with its insight, intellectualism and innovation into the psychological world one builds, with a message that sometimes the most beautiful things in the world are the things we can’t physically see but we find within ourselves and I look forward to seeing how this company keeps us guessing with their next feat. Special shoutout to Matt Biscombe for his performance in the production and to the rest of the cast and crew on such a stellar opening night and if you have a passion for both psychology and fine acting, then make sure you get your tickets to the show while you still can, support the company and support local theatre. Congratulations to Heidelberg Theatre Company, chookas for the rest of your season and keep looking for the truth about yourself deep inside.

htc.org.au

About the Author

Lucas Ioppolo is a community theatre performer with a passion to bring a positive energy and encouragement to those in theatre who have gone unnoticed or underrepresented. He hopes his reviews can help bring the spotlight back to a community that has helped him throughout the years.

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