Placebo prescription

New Theatre Company's Faith Healer is a half-cure for the dramatic itch

Artistic director Bruce Coleman and his versatile New Theatre Company have just abandoned a semi-permanent home for a permanent one, alternating shows with Deep Ellum Opera Theatre at TOES (Theatre on Elm Street). Interest is burgeoning from corporate backers, and the company has added an extra performance to their weekly schedule; every Wednesday night performance is pay-what-you-can at New Theatre Company, so stop complaining that quality theater is too expensive and warm a seat at TOES.

These are all signs that the very agile New Theatre Company might go the way of an Undermain, should Coleman and his actor associates Charlotte Akin and Jim Jorgensen want to stick it out that long. We're talking national reputation for a regional theater that supports new work, which leads to the commissioning of new works by prominent playwrights, which leads to New Theatre Company members branching out of the city to tackle national and international projects. I'm sad to predict that all this will lead to acclaimed Dallas theater professionals taking I-35 north to more hospitable theatrical climes, but I don't want to plant suggestions in anybody's head...or jinx any best-laid plans, either.

Whether or not they will one day abandon us, Coleman and company certainly have an important role to play today and in the near future right here among us--to continue and further expand the range of their big-hearted humanitarian approach to theater as the ultimate redemption of damaged lives. The fact that they have pursued this course by staging mostly Dallas/Southwest premieres proves they care about the cultivation of the means to their artistic end.

So while I'd love to announce that New Theatre Company's debut production in their new space is an excellent opportunity for folks to initiate a love affair with this very worthy company, the opening night performance I attended suffered from a major imbalance, even a disruptive conflict, in rhythm and tone. Faith Healer, a 1980 piece by the acclaimed Irish playwright Brian Friel (Dancing at Lughnasa), is certainly harmonious with New Theater Company's twin agendas--lesser known works by important playwrights that confront human frailty without flinching.

But director Keith Oncale hasn't been able to harness the wildly divergent talents of his three cast members into the single, merciless shiv-to-the-gut that Friel so clearly intended with his heartbreaking fictional testimonies. The result is an evening of sometimes powerful fragments that form a crooked, unfocused picture regardless of how many times you reshuffle them in your mind.

Friel, who first made his American literary name with short fiction in The New Yorker over three decades ago and has seen his subsequent plays staged to great acclaim in the major theaters of New York, Dublin, and London, didn't set out to write a traditional play with Faith Healer. This sorrowful, sometimes eerie drama is actually four monologues spoken by three different characters who all know each other--the boozing, cruel-spirited traveling faith healer, Fantastic Francis Hardy (Jim Jorgensen); his masochistically devoted wife and assistant, Gracie (Charlotte Akin); and his wearily philosophical manager/promoter, Teddy (Bruce Coleman).

With four characters talking about but never actually encountering each other on stage, Friel has designed an ingeniously simple lazy Susan of revolving impressions, confessions, and lies that, through the course of the evening, overlap, reappear, or cancel each other out as we gain perspective on the principals. Kurosawa achieved this same effect on film with Rashomon, and William Faulkner manipulated it on the printed page in As I Lay Dying.

The opportunity for an actor to make his or her mark on the audience with one extended monologue will induce kid-in-the-candy-store greediness in even the most disciplined performer. Yet in order for actors to realize Brian Friel's tense accumulation of detail as the buildup to a slow exhalation rather than an explosive climax, the director must keep everyone's performance constantly in mind when he deals with each solo actor. It's the seemingly alchemical mission of finding mysterious power in the anecdotal, and it requires that everyone maintain the same delicate balance in separate, a cappella performances.

It sounds a little silly to complain that Jim Jorgensen, Charlotte Akin, and Bruce Coleman act like they're performing in different plays, since each does emote in a different scene. Director Keith Oncale did not step in to hang a line of communication over the isolation tank of each monologue, so that the actors onstage could convey a sense of the tangled relationships among their characters.

Jim Jorgensen as the imperious Frank Hardy remained for me the most elusive character in the show, which half the time worked in his favor, enlivening his performance with a slippery energy. Still, Jorgensen didn't quite seem to get a handle on where Mr. Hardy's love of grand illusion sprang. Physically, Jorgensen can look strikingly handsome or winsomely awkward, his sharp-cut facial features either sinister or yearning and noble. I caught fleeting glimpses of all these qualities in his performance, but they seemed like satellites without a center.

Charlotte Akin's problem can be defined more simply--although full of intriguing dark currents, her well of sorrow opens too abruptly in the second scene. Gracie is an intelligent woman who has harnessed her spirit to the hope of love, symbolized in her constant efforts to conceive a child and exert some pitiful amount of order in Frank's chaotic life. We don't doubt that Gracie has earned every ounce of pain Akin plumbs here, but since this monologue is the only time we meet her, the constant anguish hits us like a ton of bricks rather than the slow accumulation of musty, smothering blankets a more nimble reading would relay.

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