The wounds of life

Blue Room director explores the healing powers of another Irish drama

<i>The Faith Healer</i> cast: (from left) Jerry Miller, William Johnson and Teresa Hurley.

The Faith Healer cast: (from left) Jerry Miller, William Johnson and Teresa Hurley.

Photo by Joe Hilsee

The Faith Healer shows at the Blue Room Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., through May 13.
Tickets: $15/advance; $18/door; pay-what-you-can Thursdays ($5 minimum)
Blue Room Theatre
139 W. First St.

During his 17 years in Chico, Joe Hilsee has directed or acted in nine plays by either Martin McDonagh or Conor McPherson.

“I really like the Irish dramas, obviously,” he said. And, it turns out, so do local theatergoers.

“Northern California audiences seem to really respond to them,” he said. “They are all loaded with humor, yet have this underlying dark tone.”

It’s that same dramatic tradition that made Hilsee want to direct The Faith Healer, a dark drama by late Irish playwright Brian Friel that Hilsee was reminded of a couple of years ago while in a bar discussing Irish drama (naturally).

“There’s a lot of humor in the play, and there’s a lot of tears in the soul,” he said. “It’s a beautiful play, wonderfully written.”

Friel, who died in 2015 after a 50-year career in theater, is a predecessor of contemporary playwrights McDonagh and McPherson, and The Faith Healer is one of his signature works. Published in 1971, the play is presented in four monologues by three different characters: Frank the faith healer; his wife, Grace; and his manager, Teddy. Each gets a turn at telling the story of traveling around Scotland putting on their show. “Imagine something like the [Chico] Grange Hall,” Hilsee explained. “They rent out these little halls and do their faith-healing bit.”

The mystery in the play comes from the fact that each of the three characters shares different versions of the same story (with the faith healer both starting and capping it off with a second soliloquy). The thread running through all their stories is the nature of the faith healer’s powers. And discerning what’s real and what’s a put-on is not only a puzzle for the audience but also the central concern for the characters trying to make sense of the tragic events in their lives.

“They all have their own view of what their reality is,” Hilsee said, adding that the audience likely will leave the theater kind of stunned and asking questions of what actually transpired (“Who planted the cross in the cow field?”) and who was telling the truth. “Everybody’s a little untrustworthy in their own way,” he said.

Playing the trio are three veteran Chico actors—William Johnson (Frank), Jerry Miller (Teddy) and Teresa Hurley (Grace). And Hilsee explained that the play’s format—wherein each player takes the stage solo—allowed him to reach out to high-caliber players who otherwise might’ve been too busy to commit to a traditional rehearsal schedule. His pitch was that they could rehearse on their own whenever they wanted. So, while the three have been meeting individually with Hilsee and rehearsing for the past four months, they got together as a group only two weeks ago.

The individual prep work has really paid off, Hilsee said, as repeated readings have provided deeper insight into Friel’s artistry. “The more we work on it, we realize how intricate this play is. … What he’s saying about art, about humanity.”

Hilsee said that, though he’d read The Faith Healer in college, he’d forgotten about it until that barroom discussion, and reading it after having lived some life made him come to appreciate it more.

“After 30 years of life, reading something when you’re 50 instead of 22, is different. … It kind of struck me,” he said. “It’s about all of us. It’s about the state of us being a human being.”