It is impossible for me to write an unbiased review of anything produced by Starving Artist Productions, the creative brainchild of Nathan Rouse. There are many reasons for this. Nathan has been one of my best friends since our days at Gardner-Webb University, his wife is the executive Pastor at Renovatus, and I am the proud godfather to their daughter Lucy. Nathan has been in the trenches with me in dreaming up the vision for Charlotte that is Renovatus and I’ve been in the trenches with him in dreaming up the vision for Charlotte’s creative community that is Starving Artist.
But there are other reasons why I can’t pretend to do any sort of “objective” treatment of Faith Healer. For a play that features a complicated traveling evangelist/shaman/charlatan/whatever you decide Francis Hardy really is, I’m in too deep cahoots with the character himself. In the delicate, slow-burning portrait of Hardy, as seen through his wife, his PR man/sidekick and ultimately his own eyes, I understand Francis better than I would like to. He’s an ordinary guy, no holier than anybody else, who glides from town to town with his “one-night only” healing services. Perhaps like the U2 song, “He’s a preacher stealing hearts at a traveling show—for the love of money, money, money, money.” Or is he? Do with him what you will; Francis Hardy has a gift. He knows when the gift is going to show up and when it isn’t, but either way the show goes on. When the magic happens, Hardy becomes somebody else. There is a clarity, a focus, a fulfillment that swallows him whole when the gift is in operation. And then a few hours later, he’s back to being Francis again.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t share Hardy’s proclivity to alcohol or rocky marriage, but it still hits close to home. He’s all about the gift, lives for the addictive drug of transcendence he only experiences under the tent. He’s got a wife who’s all about him, as hopeless under Francis’ spell as he is of whatever muse it is that visits him every so often. These three characters have to live with each other day in and day out traveling the country in a van, and in a way it is the performance that holds them together and the performance that holds them apart.
I remember when we took a team to Mexico, partnering with a local church to do a series of outdoor worship services in the heart of Playa Del Carmen. The church publicized the event all over town. When we saw the posters all over the city, I asked my friend Pedro what they said. Translated, he told me they said “Come expect a miracle.” Oh boy. I am no healing evangelist—I just don’t have the hair for it, and maybe not the faith. What do you do when people come to you with the weight of all there darkest fears resting on fragile bodies, many of which were already broken and cripple? Who can bear the terror of that? Who would want to? The fear of looking like a fool, the fear of God not showing up or perhaps the fear that He actually would show up. It’s all there. And while I haven’t added “faith healer” to my bio or resume, I only get more comfortable with the ancient Christian practice of laying hands on the sick and asking God for their healing. I can’t conjure the magic—indeed the Holy Ghost is untamed at times and maybe even elusive. But to know that something mysterious transpires when I touch on Christ’s behalf, to believe that he could touch through me? That’s the delusion of a crazy person, the faith of an extremist, or perhaps both at the same time. I had never seen Brian Friel’s Faith Healer before, but I’m well acquainted with Francis Hardy.
For fans of “The Birth,” the staple Christmas offering Starving Artist is known for so far, they are in for something similar but altogether different. Like “The Birth,” drawn from the pages of the elegant Frederick Buechner, this is a story about faith without the side order of sentimentality or the syrup on top. Like “The Birth,” it is unafraid to explore the underside of faith. Unlike “The Birth” which is ultimately celebratory and hopeful, Faith Healer is significantly darker. That’s not to say that there isn’t real hope and faith present—its there. But even given its beautiful prose and the melodic Irish accents of the characters, it’s a starker piece with more adult themes and content. Like “The Birth,” much of the show rests on the charisma and charm of Rouse himself, who gives a performance that is inviting and interesting in the first half of the show, devastating and commanding in act two. It’s also powered by Christina Whitehouse Scruggs, who delves deep into the heartbreak of Grace Hardy, and an energizing performance of James K. Flynn as Teddy, Hardy’s assistant. An experienced actor considerably older than Rouse and Whitehouse-Suggs, Flynn brings both a road weariness and energy to Teddy that lights up the second half of the show.
Also like “The Birth”, Faith Healer gives a lot to the audience and asks a lot of them in return. But this time it’s not an invitation to worship per se, but an invitation to probe the mysteries of their own faith, their own tragic relationships, their own moments of magic and their own moments of profound failure. It’s an emotional event to be certain, dealing in love and hope and heartbreak in very large doses. It’s light on theology proper insofar that Francis Hardy is selling an experience and not a doctrine—thus it’s a broad meditation on faith and doubt and the long distances in between that anyone can relate to. The performances are courageous, the characters are haunting, and the feelings stirred from a couple hours inside the Duke Theater linger long into the night, where dreams are shaped and faith is alternately born and destroyed. It is the only play I’ve ever attended that left me with the same bittersweet aftertaste of an Ingmar Bergman film.
Faith Healer runs May 4-8 and 11-13 at Duke Energy Theatre, tickets online at www.carolinatix.org