Friday, March 03, 2006

#39: Greenhouse Effects: RORY O’SHEA WAS HERE & Brian Friel’s MOLLY SWEENEY * 3/3/06 Only this morning I’ve read two reviews in the local paper complaining that films opening here this weekend are formulaic rehashes. I think this quest for surprise is a tad pinched & short-sighted. After all, Fellini’s inventiveness built a whole cinematic career on the stock characters & plots of Italy’s commedia del arte. And the American Western movie largely depends on how a director interacts with its established conventions. Director Damien O’Donnell’s RORY O’SHEA WAS HERE is a 2004 Irish film that’s now available state-side on DVD. It opens Sunday afternoon at the Redhouse in Armory Square for a three week run there, ending right after St. Patrick’s Day. As often happens at the Redhouse, programming in one realm reflects another. J.T. Lee, who runs the film program there, intentionally paired RORY O’SHEA with the current stage production of Brian Friel’s 1994 play, MOLLY SWEENEY, which opened last week. The movie addresses one sort of physical disability (muscular dystrophy & cerebral palsy) & the play another (blindness), both of which occur for people who are ordinary rather than heroic. We meet RORY O’SHEA’s title character (played by James McAvoy) when he enters yet another nursing home at the age of 21. Quickly settled in, his Che posters & photos of himself with luscious babes proclaim a vanished lifestyle. He’s the one with muscular dystrophy. He makes friends with Michael (Steven Robertson) for initially instrumental reasons. Despite his severely spastic body, Michael is willing to spike Rory’s hair with gel when the nurses wear out on that chore, & Rory understands Michael’s garbled speech, thus providing him with a translator to navigate more widely in the world. There’s a girl who’s beyond reach, obstacles to be gotten around, & an authoritarian administrator (Brenda Fricker, ironically evoking this movie’s 1989 predecessor, MY LEFT FOOT, in which she had a very different role). Rory & Michael finagle a way to leave the home for their own apartment & Rory, having served his purpose by streaking across Michael’s dark horizon like a meteor, meets what his father says is his “expected” end. As the title pounds home, Rory’s purpose is to be remembered in another’s redeemed life, not to live his own. Yes, we’ve seen this plot before. For example, there’s Peter Chelsom’s small but admirable 1998 movie, THE MIGHTY, & another variation in the classic ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. And so on. Decried by some reviewers as emotionally excessive & manipulative, Rory’s “expected” death explains his impatience, his short temper & what his minders consider his bad adjustment. Since we expect the disabled – the stigmatized of all kinds – to do the work of making the rest of us comfortable, such stories really demand some device to rescue characters like Rory from simply being labeled poor sports. O’Donnell takes a deeper look at these boys as social outsiders, something he’s done before. His 1999 film, EAST IS EAST (1999), makes use of the stock plot of East Indian immigrants both adjusting to & clashing with London culture that has generated a lively sub-genre of similar films, such as the 1997 MY SON THE FANATIC & the better-known BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM (2002). In attempting to live on their own, Michael & Rory are certainly much like foreigners who resist ghetto confinement. Also edgier than we might think is director O’Donnell’s willingness to make us uncomfortable with Michael. Rory is an attractive young man – the phrase “happens to be sitting in a wheelchair” could actually apply to him in the bar scene. Michael’s another matter. Many viewers will have to admit they share the bar girls’ queasiness with him as a potential date. This deepens the abjectness of Michael’s heartbreak when one of those bar girls, Siobhan, who briefly winds up as the boys’ personal assistant, feels she must leave when his emotions become too hot for her. I suspect this was harder for a director to pull off. In a lazier movie, Michael would be the side-kick watching Siobhan & Rory, leaving us all less ruffled. Because of this discomfort, RORY O’SHEA WAS HERE is an apt companion to Friel’s MOLLY SWEENEY, even though we know this decent little film is not going to survive anywhere near as long as Friel’s great play. Especially as mounted at the Redhouse, MOLLY SWEENEY will engage you & make you more uncomfortable in its last moments than you imagined. Director Gerard Moses told me on opening night that the play “really is an Irish RASHOMON,” presenting three radically different versions of blind & large-hearted but rather ordinary title character Molly’s return to sight. Blindness as a rich, multi-hued metaphor goes back to the Greeks & beyond, of course, & it’s appeared before on the Irish stage, in Synge’s work, for one. MOLLY SWEENEY relies heavily on the work of Oliver Sacks with the blind, in particular with the adjustments they encounter when “sight” turns out to be different & harder than they expected, & not all that congenial. There are many things to admire about this production. We are used to Gerard Moses’ nuanced direction & physical characterizations, which often go well beyond what a script offers. But when you know how little guidance Friel’s text provides in this regard, & how quiet & devoid of sets & lighting other productions have been, you will appreciate more what’s been created here. In a deeply moving & arresting performance by Nicole Halmos, Molly doesn’t do well with her new sight. Friel’s language in her mouth is a joy. But look further: in the blocking of her movements, Halmos several times makes a simple, clean change in direction that serves to almost paragraph what’s happening on-stage, a repeated half-turn that could be described as “dancerly” (much the same as in film we see some cinematography as “painterly”). Molly is at home in her blindness & we spend a long, leisurely time with this woman, free to look her over. Then, in her brilliantly performed last scene, Halmos’ Molly turns once more, & we get a taste of how unexpectedly overwhelming acquiring vision might be. For once, I’m not going to tell you any more, but a tiny choice about how to play this provides the kind of shock that makes the best theater. You must see this. Both the movie & the play rely on formulas. Both are parables, & their stock elements relieve an audience of engaging with ambivalence & discomfort at a merely intellectual level – where opinions about political & social “issues” tend to harden – & instead fly under the radar of the audience’s own shame. I think this is a gift. (1,107)