Molly Sweeney was written by Brian Friel and inspired by an Oliver Sacks story, It tells the tale of a 40 year old Molly who has been blind since she was an infant. Her sighted husband Frank becomes obsessed with trying to restore her sight and brings her to see Mr. Rice, a local ophthalmologist. The play revolves around those three characters and their attempt to restore Molly’s sight. The funny, sad, poignant drama spins around all sorts of ideas about sight, blindness, seeing, understanding, and different ways of living a full rich life.
From the earliest planning for this production we were hoping to bring it to a blind audience. In addition to the subject matter, the style of the play is ideal for a blind audience – i.e. no visual plot points. When we heard back from the Carroll Center that the Bay State Council for the Blind had agreed to underwrite a free performance, we were thrilled … and maybe a slight bit apprehensive. The author of the original story, the playwright, the director, and all the actors are sighted. While the themes of the play all rang true for all of us, it was hard to know whether they would ring as true to a blind audience.
During the pre-show announcements, one of the audience members yelled out “have you ever done radio drama before?” and the crowd roared and we all relaxed a bit.
As it turned out – no need to worry. It was a wonderful night from start to finish and possibly the best performance so far in the run. It was a wildly different performance too.
One of the wonderful things about live theater is that every night the audiences react differently. One night the audience might be hushed through nearly the entire show, on the next they seem to be roaring with laughter from start to finish. Certain lines elicit a response one night and nothing the next. Last night, right from the start, the Carroll Center audience had a completely different reaction from start to finish to the entire story. You could see the actors in the opening minutes re-calibrating their performances as they took in the totally different and enthusiastic response they were getting from the audience.
One wonderful aspect of the entire night was the reassuring welcome we all got from the staff and the audience as they guided us sighted newcomers into our first foray into a blind world. There were various potentially embarrassing missteps on our part and various different logistical details we had never dealt with before. How do the actors get on the stage in the dark with guide dogs sitting on the stage in front of the front row seats. How do we signal the end of intermission? As I flashed the lights, the universal theater sign for get-back-to-your-seats, a sighted staff member gave me a sly grin and said “stating the obvious, maybe flashing the lights isn’t the most effective signal for this crowd”.
The simplest detail that befuddled and blindsided us was how do you call on a specific member of the audience during the question/answer session after the show? A dozen hand shoot up, how to you signal who’s being called on? As I said, there was no need for worry. The audience and the staff were wonderfully patient and good humored about our stumbling around in the dark.
It was during the Q/A session that it became clear that this play really did speak to this blind audience. As our host Brian said to us afterwards “there wasn’t a person in the room that some aspect of the story didn’t touch them directly.” For the actors in particular I think it was an amazing night. The actor’s job is of course to pretend to be someone else. In some cases, the role they play is a character or situation they may know well. In this case though, none of the three actors had any personal experience with blindness or blind people until last night. I think some part of all three actors were worried that perhaps they had got something entirely wrong. When the cheers went up at the end it was clear they hadn’t.
Thanks to all the folks at the Carroll Center for the extremely warm welcome. We can’t wait to come back again with our next show.