“Faith Healer” Reviewed, Plus Weekend Picks!

The man who shambles onto the Guthrie Theater stage in a rumpled trenchcoat and fedora, like a shorter, sloppier Robert Mitchum, resembles Joe Dowling only around the edges—the accent, partly; the seductive wash of language; the resolute bearing, however unhinged. In acting for the first time on his own stage, Dowling, the Guthrie’s artistic director, successfully becomes a stranger in his own home.

Curiousity about Dowling’s performance may be selling seats for Faith Healer, staged now through December 6, but the story itself quickly becomes the main attraction. Told in monologues delivered by three characters—played here by Dowling, Raye Birk, and Sally Wingert—the different points of view are woven into a hard, tight narrative about the eponymous “healer,” his impresario, and the woman who variously loves, hates, and fears him. Written by Dowling’s friend and inspiration Brian Friel, the play is a master class in storytelling and a model of suspense that grips you to the end in a vise of fantastic possibility and pathetic human impulses.

The show would be almost morbidly claustrophobic if not for two things: Raye Birk’s welcome comic relief as the promoter, grandly mustachioed and hardly averse to a tipple; and the fact that Friel, true to form, looks in on these co-dependents from a bit of a writerly distance, the affectations of his script reminding you it’s only a show. Even still, the performances elicit empathy, understanding, and even compassion, though here Dowling may fall short. He’s the first to take the stage, and his point of view is compelling—until Wingert and Birk succeed him, and manage to find nuances in their characters—bumps and limbs to climb out onto, to make their personas more three-dimensional—that may hardly have been illuminated in Friel’s solid, sheer script.

The performance I saw did not compel a standing ovation—but I suspect this was due to a kind of catatonic shock induced by the neat and dramatic ending that doesn’t leave the audience hanging so much as throws them into the dark, apparent conclusion that, up to the last second, you had hoped to avoid. There’s a lot to discuss in the aftermath, though the most immediate topic on many patrons’ minds seemed to be whether Birk was really drinking what he appeared to be—and so much of it.

In other venues this weekend, the mentor to the Twin Cities’ marvelous Ragamala Dance troupe, Alarmel Valli, is here from India tonight to perform one show only of the classical dance form Bharatanatyam at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium, accompanied by an Indian orchestra. The legendarily spooky Haunted Basement continues at the Soap Factory, In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre stages a Day of the Dead puppet show for kids on October 31. Tonight and tomorrow, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra also gets in the spirit of things with Frankenstein!! (yes, with two exclamation points) and the premiere of a new trumpet concerto.