Faith Healer: Exploring the power of faith and myth-making

Few can weave a tale that casts a spell of mystery and enlightenment as well as the Irish, and Brian Friel was one of the nation’s most talented 21st-century examples.

Tony Estrella as Frank. Photo by Cat Laine.

His “Faith Healer” – now on stage for a limited run at The Gamm Theatre – is an honest look at the complexities and frailties of man, the pain and lies woven through relationships, and the power of faith.

Gamm taps Ireland native Donnla Hughes to direct and rolls out several of its finest actors for the three-person show to create a soundtrack of chuckles and sighs at the comingled beauty and agony in Friel’s lines.

A series of four monologues over a two-hour production, “Faith Healer” relays a story through each character’s eyes – Frank, the traveling faith healer who promises miracles for the sick and suffering; Grace, his beleaguered wife; and Teddy, his charming Cockney manager.

Friel’s words are captivating. Early into the show, Frank, played by Gamm Artistic Director Tony Estrella, refers to the holidays grimly, saying, “The people we moved among were too far along for that kind of celebration.” Those coming to his shows, he says later, “hated me because, by coming, they publicly acknowledged their need…and sealed their anguish.”

Hughes – who filmed a Gamm YouTube video comically assessing Irish accents by Hollywood greats like George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Tom Hanks – cultivates gentle yet consistent accents in her cast to embody Friel’s tale authentically. Estrella’s brogue is soothing, thickening suitably when lines rise in emotion. The one offered by Jeanine Kane as Grace is softer and more neutralized, befitting of the character herself. And Brandon Whitehead’s Cockney roll is superb.

Jeanine Kane as Grace. Photo by Cat Laine.

Accents set the scenes but the actors ably add life to the sparse set, moving a chair, draining a beer, or lighting a cigarette as they dissect elements of faith and their relationships. Hughes occasionally uses special lighting and music to frame their delivery and mimic thought sequences. Doing so sparsely, beautifully highlights the moments.

Kane faces perhaps the biggest challenge to capture the audience’s heart. While Estrella is enigmatic and Whitehead comical, she must be raw and digs deep for a delivery laced with palpable anguish. In relaying Grace’s tragedy, Kane quakes with nerves, repeats the names of towns they’ve visited as a soothing mantra, and physically contorts under the burden.

There is power in each word of “Faith Healer,” brilliance in each actor’s delivery, and a lingering sense of sadness long after the curtain falls. The experience is an absolute gift.

“Faith Healer” is playing through January 29 at Gamm, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. For ticket information, go to gammtheatre.org.

Brandon Whitehead as Teddy. Photo by Cat Laine.

It’s a Wonderful Life: One man’s life touches so many others

It’s a familiar story that has been shown for several years at Gamm Theatre and spans decades on TV in black and white, but the feeling of It’s a Wonderful Life never diminishes.

Like the scent of pine in the air and the sparkle of twinkling lights on a tree, the story of how a sweet, wingless angel helps small-town loan officer George Bailey work through feelings of uselessness and hopelessness on Christmas Eve is steeped in holiday spirit.

Jeff Church as George Bailey; Background: Fred Sullivan, Jr. as Clarence

The Gamm team takes on the radio play version of the story, offering a behind-the-scenes look at how a small cast and a fast-moving foley man generating live sound effects recreate the story made famous by Frank Capra in 1946.

The spin draws the audience into the show in unique ways, as talented actors like Helena Tafuri, Rodney Witherspoon II, Lynsey Ford, and Richard Noble shift seamlessly and instantaneously between voicing a variety of diverse characters. Noble is inebriated in one breath and soberly spunky in the next. Tafuri’s voice slides from childish to temptress, and Ford’s from maternal to young woman. Witherspoon proves he can voice jovial, childlike, and country-bumpkin characterizations in a matter of seconds.

Jeff Church as George Bailey, Milly Massey as Zuzu Bailey

The sheer talent of this Gamm cast is what makes the story of George’s angst and the town’s love for him larger than life. Heading the cast is Jeff Church as George, and if anyone could adequately replace company Artistic Director Tony Estrella in the role, it is the multi-talented Church. His performance is endearing and genuine as he bonds with the audience along his heart-wrenching journey to self-redemption.

Perhaps the most riveting performance, however, comes from Fred Sullivan Jr. as Clarence the Angel. Helping restore George’s faith in himself is an important assignment for Clarence, who’ll earn himself coveted wings if he’s successful. Sullivan gives an audible sense of awe to the angel’s voice, adding a sense of wonder to each line.

Will Malloy, Foley Artist

Like every cast member but Church, Sullivan assumes other roles, including the miserly town villain, Mr. Potter. To experience him slip from Clarence’s innocence to a smarmy sneer as Potter is like watching a master class.

It’s a Wonderful Life is guaranteed to leave audiences feeling lighter, happier, and more festive when they leave the theatre. Between a sweet story, a standout cast, and the riveting antics of Foley Artist Will Malloy, who coaxes supportive sounds from shoes, bells, and the rub of a hot water bottle, this is 90 minutes of pure joy.

The show runs at Gamm Theatre through December 24. For tickets, visit gammtheatre.org.

All photos by Sean McConaghy.