THEATER | In the Guthrie’s “Faith Healer,” Joe Dowling’s directing skill makes up for his wooden acting

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In the program notes for Faith Healer, now playing at the Guthrie, artistic director Joe Dowling, who also directed the production and plays the central role of Frank, writes that he first became acquainted with playwright Brian Friel when he saw Philadelphia, Here I Come at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin in 1964. (Interesting side note: Dowling writes that Friel wrote much of that play in Minneapolis when he was an observer during the inaugural season at the Guthrie Theater.) Since Dowling’s first viewing of Philadelphia, he has gone on to direct numerous Friel plays both in Ireland and at the Guthrie, and his relationship with Friel has gone from admirer to colleague and friend. “I am thrilled with the genius of his work and have had enormous pleasure in working on every production we have done together,” Dowling writes.

Dowling’s intimate understanding of Friel’s language and poetry comes out in the production of Faith Healer, an incredibly dark play about a man who travels throughout the British Isles with his wife, Grace, and his manager, Frank, healing the sick in mostly poorly attended “performances” in beat-up halls and theaters. Hardy is occasionally successful at his craft—one time healing ten people in one sitting—but at other times fails miserably.

faith healer, playing through december 6 at the guthrie theater. for tickets ($24-$60) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

Working with Guthrie veterans Sally Wingert and Raye Birk, Dowling draws out a deeply disturbing portrait of a brilliant alcoholic who ultimately faces his own reliance on chance.

Wingert and Birk give commendable performances. Wingert’s Grace is full of love soaked in bitterness. She’s utterly specific in every gesture, and devastating to watch as she relays her travels with Frank, who she can’t live without despite the fact that he humiliates her constantly. Birk steals the show as Frank, a self-deprecating charmer who knows how to tell a good story, and who loves his business partner and wife in spite of his policy to keep friendship and business separate. He entices the audience with his wit and antics, and draws them into his multifaceted character.

The performance also benefits from a superb set design by Fank Hallinan Flood and a breathtaking lighting design by Marcus Dilliard.

Not surprisingly, Dowling, who makes his American acting debut with this performance (he has directed the show previously), pales in comparison to his co-actors. Though he has a command of the language and understands the nature of his character, he gives a wooden performance. Dowling appears ill at ease on stage, and it’s disappointing that he chose to cast himself, where a more skilled actor could have made this production truly stunning.

Still, the play as a whole, presented in four monologues by the three actors, is satisfying in its portrayal of these three characters as they make sense of their existence that has relied solely on luck. Friel’s language is so rich and his subtle exploration of character and human condition is so truthful that we forgive Dowling for not being as great at acting Friel’s words as he is at directing Friel’s story.

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