The American Legacy
220 East Fourth Street ~ New York, New York 10009
Office: 212 995 8410 ~ Tickets: 212 995 5302
"One of my favorite downtown theaters" ~ Martin Denton, nytheatre.com
|Reviews - The
The subject of The Faith Healer, the early 20th century play by William Vaughn Moody that is receiving a warm new production at the Metropolitan Playhouse, perhaps predictably, is faith.
It deals with many kinds of faith, though; faith in God of course, but faith in ourselves, and faith in others as well. The faith healer of the title, Ulrich Michaelis (played by Scott Barrow), is not only a man apparently capable of performing miracles of healing, but also someone who allows others to believe in themselves.
This, as the play suggests, is healing of an equally important sort, and not one that the play shies away from. Though the issues with which The Faith Healer deals (health, love, religion, etc.) are time-trusted and familiar, it deals in depth with these topics only as far as they relate to faith and belief. You'll find no medical or spiritual pontificating, but a few answers and even more questions. The play leaves much unexplained - though the Metropolitan Playhouse has done much, you'll have to fill in a few blanks yourself.
In terms of specifics, though, Michaelis finds shortly after arriving in a small community outside of St. Louis, that he truly has his work cut out for him: The matriarch of the house in which he's staying, Mary (Katherine Brecka) has been forced into a wheelchair by a stroke, her husband and sister (Roy Bacon and Susan Willerman) are easily distrustful, and the beautiful young Rhoda (Darra Herman) has been scarred emotionally in her past, those wounds also yet to heal.
As the play continues, it becomes obvious that Michaelis himself has wounds of his own he must cure, and it is this more than anything else that is the true backbone of the play. Director Keith Oncale brings this out quietly and with care; in a play where there are few sky-searing theatrical fireworks, the act of Mary rising from a wheelchair or a young woman in desperate need presenting her baby to Michaelis carry an undeniable punch.
This is all brought to the fore by a very effective company of actors. Barrow covers all the bases as the spiritually troubled title character, while Herman gives an effectively controlled and mannered performance, though one that might not warm up quite as much as the script itself suggests. Tod Mason as the oily doctor with designs on Rhoda and Jenni Tooley as the young mother in need of healing for her baby stand out in the smaller roles all populated with actors bringing charm and humanity to roles that require them in spades.
The evening's most vital and important performance comes from Brecka, who manages to speak volumes with every line, and who seems to span the stage with every movement. Her elation at being able to walk is palpable, while her defeat along the way is heartrending. Part of the magic of The Faith Healer is that you believe in her so fully that it seems Mary's journey - though tied inextricably to Michaelis's - is yours as well.
Her performance alone is worth a trip to The
Healer, but the play's simple charms and refreshingly unassuming nature
plenty of reasons to stay.
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton · March 24, 2002
Nearly a century ago, William Vaughn Moody's play The Faith Healer played a six performance run on Broadway. It was, obviously, not well-received. In it, a stalwart Missouri farmer named Matthew Beeler—a resolute man of science who keeps a photo of Charles Darwin on his mantelpiece!—changes his ways when his wheelchair-bound wife is cured by a roving faith healer: spiritualism defeats empiricism, squarely. What I want to know is, did the 1910 audience root for the farmer or the faith healer?
Even more compellingly, now that Metropolitan Playhouse has rediscovered this lost treasure and mounted it at their intimate East Village theatre, whom do we root for in 2002? The answer is not necessarily obvious: even though it's very easy to come up with rational explanations for Mary Beeler's sudden ability to rise out of her chair and walk on her own two feet, that doesn't negate our strong emotional attachment to the irrational explanations that the play proffers.
Adding to the complexity of the question is Moody's own intention, which is also cloudier than you might expect. His tale is clearly pitched in favor of the young healer, Ulrich Michaelis; but is that because Moody truly believes his hero has the touch of God in him? Scientific debunking of religious faith was a hot topic a hundred years ago—still is, too; mightn't Moody merely be looking for a sensational subject for an exceedingly well-crafted melodrama?
Ah, there is much to ponder as we watch this engrossing play. Moody gives Ulrich a shadowy past, a silent sidekick (an Indian boy named Lazarus who he supposedly raised from the dead), a love interest (Rhoda Williams, Mary's niece), and a villainous opponent worthy of the name, Dr. Littlefield. He also gives Rhoda a past: she is a "wicked woman" (and we know what that means); it is she who suffers—and who must do penance—in order for Ulrich to achieve his true calling as a man of God. Filling out the play are Matthew's spinster sister, Martha, another skeptic-turned-believer; and Uncle Abe, a black man whose apparently childlike faith marks him as the most noble and virtuous of all. (An interesting side note: in the world of this play—St. Louis, Missouri in 1908—the former slave Uncle Abe is clearly socially superior to the renegade Indian boy Lazarus.)
Keith Oncale's staging is straightforward, if a little slow-moving; Dan Nichols' farmhouse setting, Abby Smith's appropriate costumes, and Doug Filomena's resourceful lighting all serve the piece well. There are some truly fine performances here, as well, notably Scott Barrow as the conflicted but unflinchingly saintly Ulrich and Tod Mason as the lecherous Dr. Littlefield, so dastardly you imagine that he spends his offstage time tying young women to railroad tracks.
What's impressive about The Faith Healer is how well, in its simplistic, formulaic way, it holds up: it's a grand yarn, and you lean forward in your seat waiting to find out how it's going to resolve itself, even though you pretty much already know.
What's valuable about The Faith Healer is what it tells us about ourselves, as a culture and a nation, and how much has changed in a hundred years, and how little. Plays like this are marvelous little time capsules, revealing our ancestors' way of life to us with the detail and authenticity of a living photograph.