The last time the trio of Si Osborne, Lia D. Mortensen and Brad Armacost performed Brian Friel's "Faith Healer" in Chicago, they all were 18 years younger and working in a short-lived venue, the Turnaround Theatre, named, with a note of optimism, for the terminus of a CTA bus line. At that point, Mortensen and Osborne were married. To each other.
On Thursday night at the cozy Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue — the kind of homemade venue that's an ideal respite from wind, cold and rain — Osborne, Mortensen and Armacost, all three distinguished actors of the Chicago stage, returned to this Anglo-Irish story once again, replete with the same talented director, J.R. Sullivan, whose career has progressed greatly during these 18 years. "Faith Healer," the revival suggests, is the kind of play that can keep you awake at night. For years.
It is also the kind of play that one better appreciates, and better plays, with age.
Mortensen and Osborne are no longer together, a seemingly tangential biographical fact I point out for two reasons. The first is that baring your soul alongside your former spouse is an admirably brave artistic act. The second is that "Faith Healer" is, in large part, a meditation on the wandering artistic life and the difficulty of relationships within that context.
Frank Hardy, the titular showman with the apt initials and a heightened sense of self-awareness, tells us that his profession is "a craft without an apprenticeship, a ministry without responsibility, a vocation without a ministry." He doesn't know if he is endowed with certain gifts or if he's merely a con artist (who does?). His life, he says, is balanced somewhere between "the momentous and the absurd" (whose is not?) He is, by his own admission, a lousy guy with whom to get involved. But those who need healing can't help but hold out their bodies to him.
"Faith Healer,' which was first produced in 1979, is a series of separate monologues. We hear from Frank (Osborne), then the same sad events are retold by his wife Grace (Mortensen), and then again by Teddy (Armacost) the jocular Cockney who serves as a kind of impresario, making sure that the punters are distracted with mystery so that they buy Frank's sleight of hand, if that's what he does. And then Frank returns, alone, wrapping things up in the strangest way. None of the three characters is a reliable narrator, as they constantly contradict one another's version of events. And, at the same time, they add a little more to the cloudy picture of three lives, now reduced to the vagaries of memory and the manipulation of personal construction, that land somewhere between faith and chicanery. It was rather interesting to see this show the night after "The Book of Mormon"; despite the variance in genre, ticket prices and hoopla, the two pieces are not so different. Both are about the limitations of, and necessity for, faith.
Osborne — who, aptly, feels at once gaunt and remarkably well-preserved — goes to some dark places, and there's a real melancholy to Mortensen, who is playing a deeply devoted and thus deeply troubled wife (or so she says) whom her husband prefers to describe as his mistress, his healing powers counterbalanced by his capacity to wound. I kept wanting Mortensen to show more anger, but she makes clear one of the central ideas behind her character: Whom you marry shapes your identity. Armacost, whose Teddy has the gift of the gab and a certain defensive Cockney hilarity, adds some requisite levity, for sure, but also unleashes a side that's dark and fueled by pain. He knows his guy well.
Friel's play is long and, at times, the production needs to better maintain narrative drive — the danger here is that the characters disappear so far inside their own perceptions and neuroses, you lose track of the complex yarn itself, which is structured like a detective story where the clues lead nowhere in particular. The necessary intensification could be fixed with more pace and closer attention to the conflict in the narrative.
But the acting, nonetheless, is very affecting and the play an intensely reflective, and literate, way to end 2012. Although it played on Broadway, "Faith Healer," a gorgeous piece of writing from the great Irish dramatist, is best understood in precisely this kind of environment: intimate, revealing, unflinching. You won't have any trouble understanding why everyone involved came back to this play, assuming they'd ever left it behind.
When: Through Jan. 20
Where: Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Tickets: $26 at brownpapertickets.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye