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Stage Preview: PICT takes leap o' 'Faith' to Ireland

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

You've heard about coals to Newcastle; call this one shamrocks to Kilkenny.

No, that's too cute. Make it Guinness -- that's a better analogy to "Faith Healer," the spare and mysterious drama with heart and a kick by the great Irish playwright Brian Friel. By taking it on a three-week tour of Ireland, Oct. 14-Nov. 2, the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre is exhibiting the same sort of brass that sends hopeful refrigerator salesmen to the Arctic.

Bingo O'Malley, left, Catherine Moore and Roger Jerome make up the cast of Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre's production of Irish playwright Brian Friel's "Faith Healer." (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

"Faith Healer"

dot.gif WHERE: PICT at Byham Theater, Downtown.

dot.gif WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

dot.gif TICKETS: $40 ($10 students); preferred seating and reception $125; 412-456-6666.

dot.gif Tour schedule

But PICT isn't headed just to Ireland. To warm up for that 13-town tour and to raise money to help fund it, PICT is staging a benefit "Faith Healer" performance Tuesday at the Byham. An added attraction will be Judy Friel, both the author's daughter and former artistic director of Dublin's Abbey Theatre.

And to warm up for the Byham, "Faith Healer" goes on the road this week to Wheeling, Fairmont and Brownsville ... and to warm up still further, the three-person cast staged excerpts last Thursday and Saturday at Molly's and Mullaney's, two Irish pubs.

Barnstorming is what all this is, and that's the perfect mode for the play, which tells the strange story of faith healer Francis Hardy, his woman, Grace, and his manager, Teddy, who do one-night stands through the Gaelic outback of the British Isles. Something odd, mysterious or miraculous happens, and in four overlaid monologues they each give their versions of their eventful journey.

By doing one-night stands in Macroom and Listowel, Kiltimagh and Ballybofey, let alone Fairmont and Brownsville, the PICT caravan will experience something like Hardy's life. It isn't healing they have to offer, exactly, but in Friel's play the spiritual springs of ritual and faith are both stirred. Transcendence is always possible in performance, just as it was for Hardy, whom you could as likely account a saint as a mountebank.

An international foray is a bold and imaginative project for Pittsburgh's newest professional theater company, just six years old. Credit founder and artistic director Andrew Paul for pushing it through. But it was PICT dramaturg Michael J. Ramsay (a Donegal native) who suggested a tour in April 2000, after PICT had staged "Faith Healer" to acclaim at the Hamburg Studio. (It was No. 3 on the Post-Gazette's 10 Best list for 2000.)

Why not show Ireland what Pittsburgh could do? -- especially since the central role of Hardy is played by that archetypal guts-and-heart Pittsburgh actor, Bingo O'Malley, who has long yearned to perform in the land of his origins. It couldn't hurt that he has family by the busload all over Ireland, either.

Contacts in Ireland were encouraging, but the project ran afoul of the familiar problem -- rights. "Faith Healer" had been licensed to London's Almeida Theatre, which insisted there be no competition even in rural Ireland, lest it decide to tour. Friel was sympathetic to PICT's plans, but there was nothing he could do, and he called Paul to commiserate, which was solace in itself -- like a call direct from God, Paul calls it.

But the Almeida production came and went without such success as to encourage a tour. So PICT's plan was re-born, and through a higgledy-piggledy series of contacts and negotiations, 13 venues were lined up, concentrated in the south and the north.

The traveling company is just six: director Paul; actors O'Malley, Roger Jerome and Catherine Moore; stage manager Jessie Ksanznak; and Mark Russ, who will double as crew and videographer, documenting the travels.

Paul is high on the upcoming journey, with a lively sense of its unpredictability. "I've never been to any of the theaters, but it's more exciting that way. At the least, it'll be a great adventure. ... We don't know what to expect, but we've done our homework."

He's been to Dublin to hire a van and props, he's made sure he's "on a first-name basis with at least one person in each venue," and he's requested that checks be available on arrival. Most venues are also providing housing at B&Bs. PICT even has a pre-paid cell phone.

In each town, PICT has a small guarantee against a percentage of the box office. Prudent Paul has based his $30,000 budget on those minimums. The theaters range as large as 328, as small as 96. The Pittsburgh Office of Cultural Tourism has provided fliers and posters promoting Pittsburgh and PICT, and, in Ireland, Tony O'Reilly has promised free advertising in his national papers, the Irish Independent and Belfast Telegraph. There are possible appearances on Irish TV, and each venue will hustle tickets to cover its guarantee.

More important than the details, Paul says, "it's important Pittsburgh get recognized as a city with culture that's internationally viable. ... As far as I know, it's the first time an American company has toured Ireland with an Irish play."

Naturally he wouldn't risk this if he didn't think his "Faith Healer" could "stand up against British and Irish productions of the work. We know Bingo's great, but Roger literally stole the show nightly with his music hall cockney ... and judging from her ferocious energy, Catherine will be a fascinating Grace." (Moore replaces Kate Young, who played the role in 2000 but now lives in Chicago and is not free to tour.)

They do worry about their accents, but "Faith Healer" gives them leeway. Hardy's exact origin is unclear. Grace is from the Anglo-Irish gentry, so she speaks a version of high British. And Teddy's cockney is second-nature to the English-born Jerome.

In Pittsburgh, it proved easier to get funding for the Byham performance than the tour. Mellon Financial bought 350 tickets for local college students, and the benefit should provide about 60 percent of the tour costs.

Nationally, there's a picture and blurb in the latest issue of American Theater, although O'Malley is listed as "Brian O'Malley" -- a suggestive parallel to his character, Hardy, whose treasured newspaper clipping about a possible healing mis-names him "Harding."

So just what will happen to the band of Pittsburghers peddling Friel to the Irish? Stay tuned.

Tour Schedule

dot.gif Local tour:

    8 tonight -- Towngate Theatre, Wheeling, W.Va.; 1-88-TOWNGATE.

    7:30 p.m. Friday -- Wallman Hall Theatre, Fairmont State College, Fairmont, W.Va.; 1-304-367-4240.

    8 p.m. Saturday -- 64 Crayons Cultural Center, Brownsville, Fayette County; 724-785-9010.

dot.gif Ireland tour:

    Oct. 14 -- Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny.

    Oct. 15 -- Friar's Gate Theater, Kilmallock, Limerick.

    Oct. 17 -- Briery Gap Theatre, Macroom, Cork.

    Oct. 18 -- Village Arts Centre, Kilworth, Cork.

    Oct. 19 -- Tipperary Excel, Tipperary.

    Oct. 22 -- St. John's Arts Centre, Listowel, Kerry.

    Oct. 23 -- Town Halls Theatre, Kiltimagh, Mayo.

    Oct. 25 -- Balor Theatre, Ballybofey, Donegal.

    Oct. 26 -- The Playhouse, Derry, N. Ireland.

    Oct. 29 -- Warrenpoint Town Hall, Down, N. Ireland.

    Oct. 30 -- Queen's University, Belfast, N. Ireland.

    Nov. 1 -- Clotworthy Arts Centre, Antrim, N. Ireland.

    Nov. 2 -- Riverside Theater, U. of Ulster, N. Ireland.

Call 412-561-6000 or visit www.picttheatre.org.

Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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