Faith Healer

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Neil Cooper

Five stars

Truth is everything in Brian Friel’s mighty play, which dissects the emotional debris left behind by Francis Healey, a self-destructive faith healer who’s lost his mojo, but is so addicted to life on the road he doesn’t know how to give it up. The various truths are laid bare in a quartet of interlinked monologues, with litanies by Frank’s wife Grace and manager Teddy book-ended by two from Frank.

From a deserted village hall staple of Frank’s never-ending tour comes a series of show-boating confessionals, showbiz anecdotes and unreliable memoirs that map out the rise and fall of a life in personal and artistic decline. As Frank incants the names of the small-town circuit like a prayer, the magic he’s attempting to conjure up seems forever out of reach. But when it happens, however rarely, it is truly a thing of wonder.

Elizabeth Newman’s broodingly intense production sets out its store on Amanda Stoodley’s set, which, lit by Jeanine Byrne, looks bathed in a sepia-tinted glow. With slick-backed hair and weighed down by a shabby suit, George Costigan’s Frank attempts to conjure up some alchemy while regaling us with his greatest hits. In his still charismatic but fading, self-destructive pomp, he resembles an old-school comedian past his best or late period Mark E Smith - another psychic lightning rod.

Richard Standing’s Teddy is an equally addicted shyster chasing the big-time, while Kirsty Stuart’s Grace is perhaps the play’s most unsung tragedy, her face etched with a haunted mix of devotion and disappointment. All three in different ways are believers, chasing something more certain than the transient life they thought would lead them to it, but who are now as damaged as the old records of Ben Occhipinti’s sound design.

Friel’s play is revealed as a melancholy and still-startling rumination on the erratic and occasionally transcendent power of the latter-day gurus we call artists. In the hands of Newman and her staggering cast it takes us further, until it resembles something holy. It’s left to us to decide what’s real.