"It's the sort of part, not unlike Hamlet, maybe, where the actor brings their cloth to it," says Ralph Fiennes of his starring role in the Broadway revival of Brian Friel's Faith Healer. Audiences this month at the Booth Theatre, where the play previews until its official opening on May 4, should rest assured that they're in good hands with the man portraying the titular ragtag miracle-worker touring the backwater towns of northern England. After all, Fiennes's portrayal of the famous prince of Denmark won him a 1995 Tony Award. And Faith Healer not only marks the star's return to Broadway, but finds him tackling another role of epic (if contemporary) proportions.
"It contains all the big themes," Fiennes says of the drama. "The truth of who you are, and who you aren't. Hiding something you are, and how strong religion applies to that. And, of course, facing your death. In a nutshell, it addresses the essentials of being a human being."
As first staged by famed theatre director José Quintero and headlined by James Mason, Faith Healer debuted on Broadway in 1979 but had - as the revival's director, Jonathan Kent, calls it - "an unhappy history." With a Rashomon-like structure that presents three characters (the healer, his long-suffering lover and his loyal manager) in a series of monologues that often contradict one another about the truth of several darkly emotional events, the play closed after seven previews and 20 regular performances. Still, many feel that Friel's subject matter, combined with Faith Healer's dramaturgical construction, was ahead of its time.
"It escaped a lot of people when it first came around," Kent argues. "But I think it's a play whose time has come." And while the playwright, one of Ireland's national treasures, eventually found Broadway popularity with his Tony Award-winning Best Play of the 1991-92 season, Dancing at Lughnasa, fans of Faith Healer have had to sit in wait for broader acclaim of the play that Kent declares "is absolutely one of [Friel's] finest. On one, literal level, it's about an itinerant faith healer who has intimate powers of healing. But on another level, it's about the frustration of the artist and the nature of art, a gift that they don't know where it comes from or whether it will come every time. In that way, it's a sort of terrifying portrait of the artist and the collateral damage that he inflicts on those who are involved with him." Onstage, that may be the drama at hand. But offstage, this production, which just finished a run at Dublin's Gate Theatre, couldn't be more artistically joyous. Indeed, not only was Kent responsible for guiding Fiennes's complexly layered performance as Hamlet 12 years ago, but for Faith Healer the director has paired the Oscar-nominated star of "Schindler's List" with the revered British stage actor Ian McDiarmid (perhaps best known to American audiences as the evil emperor Palpatine in the "Star Wars" movies) in the role of the manager and last season's Tony-winning Best Actress, Cherry Jones, in the role of the lover.
Coming off the stern habit of Doubt's Sister Aloysius, Jones - whose Faith Healer character smokes, drinks and agonizes over the depth of her devotion to her man - says she couldn't resist the offer to play such an emotionally different character. Performing solo for a 30-minute stretch, however, initially gave the actress pause. "I like the camaraderie of other people onstage," Jones confesses. "But when someone hands you one of the most beautifully written things you've ever seen in your life - and you're at a point in your career where you wonder, 'How many roles like this are you going to have?' - and to be in this company with Ralph Fiennes and Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent, I just had to gird my loins and say yes."
Jones won her first Tony, for The Heiress, the same year Fiennes won his for Hamlet. "We had our pictures taken together," Jones recalls, "but we didn't really know one another." To become better acquainted before their pairing in Faith Healer, Fiennes came to see Jones in Doubt and the two "had a date" afterwards, she says with a laugh. "We had a most wonderful meal. He's so eaaasy to be with. And yet he's so elegant. It really is like being with a prince. I must say I did feel a bit like a hayseed," chuckles the Tennessee native, "but not because he made me feel that way! It's just that he's such a gentleman."
The casting of Jones couldn't have made her director and co-star happier. Faith Healer "demands three really great actors," says Kent, "and that's not just hyperbole. The play demands acting of the highest, highest order, 'cause you have to really connect with an audience for a really long time. And that's what I hope will catch the American imagination about this production, watching these three actors who are at the height of their power, truly."