Jonathan Silverstein, artistic director of Keen Company, has wanted to direct Molly Sweeney for 20 years. The story of a blind woman whose husband and doctor pressure her into risky restorative vision surgery, Molly Sweeney was written by lauded Irish playwright Brian Friel in 1994. And though Friel, who died in 2015, could not have been aware of the social changes to come, Silverstein and Pamela Sabaugh, the low-vision actor tackling the title role, believe that staging the play now requires an examination of both its ableist and feminist undertones—specifically, its warnings about men who alter women’s bodies through coercion.
That Friel’s play may have something to say about feminism or ableism in 2019 may be surprising. But if the play teaches us anything, it is that we ought not make assumptions about the lived realities of other people, even those we think we know best. Molly’s husband, Frank, repeatedly says that his wife has “nothing to lose” by undergoing the operation, as she is already missing out on the sighted world. Sabaugh points out that this line of thinking, so embedded in our culture, disregards the tactile world that people with low vision and blindness construct and navigate.
“The possibility that her point of view, her perspective, is valid and can offer wonderful things—perceiving the world through touch and hearing and smell—it’s so taken for granted,” Sabaugh says. Molly’s husband and surgeon don’t take into account the grief she feels for the tactile world she leaves behind. As Sabaugh puts it, “One of the worst forms of discrimination is indifference.”
The ignorance that plagues Molly’s husband and doctor, Silverstein notes, doesn’t make them inherently bad people, but it does complicate their good intentions. That the play grapples with the downfalls of binary thinking—the tension between good and bad, right and wrong—is the guiding force of Silverstein’s direction.
Over the course of the last year, Silverstein found himself reexamining the play, considering in a new light how a memory play from 25 years ago can add to our current conversation about choice and autonomy. He mentions the national abortion debate, which has become even more fraught in 2019. And he notes that the discussion of one person choosing or assuming the identity, life experience, or path of another has shifted in recent years.
This resonates for Sabaugh, who was the first low-vision actor to play the role of Molly Sweeney in 2007 at Philadelphia’s Amaryllis Theatre Company, and, as far she knows, the only one since in the U.S. The way that both the theatre industry and other institutions talk about the inclusion of different disability experiences has also changed in some ways since the last time she tackled Sweeney—while in many ways it hasn’t.
Amaryllis’s production was part of a disability arts festival, and the company made a conscious choice about accessibility and inclusivity that Sabaugh thinks did not represent industry standards. “Disability is often left out of the diversity conversation in the arts,” she says. “We’re still in an environment where it’s a ‘bold’ choice to have accurate representation in this role.”
The consistent exclusion of vision disabilities may come from the fact that we can’t always recognize blindness the way we can see some other disabilities, Sabaugh posits. Over the years she’s played both blind and sighted roles, and developed a solo musical, Immaculate Degeneration, to create a role with her specific experience of low vision. Without being a strictly educational play, Sweeney offers a rudimentary course in understanding blindness—namely, that people do not fall into perfect categories of totally sighted and totally blind.
Almost entirely blind since infancy, Molly is accustomed to a low-vision world, but she goes along with Frank’s suggestion to seek restorative vision surgery primarily because of her husband’s excitement. Friel based the play on the true story of a low-vision American man whose wife encouraged restorative vision surgery, which ultimately resulted in the deterioration of his overall physical and mental health. Sabaugh’s vision is somewhat different from her character’s: She was a teenager when she developed juvenile macular degeneration and lost her central vision, so her brain already had a vocabulary of the sighted world. Molly, however, has no memory of seeing, and the transition to sight poses threats both neurological and existential.
Sighted people’s misunderstandings of blindness also lead to assumptions about blind and low-vision theatre patrons. Audience members on the blindness spectrum are often offered wheelchair seating, which Sabaugh says does not necessarily accommodate low vision. (Wheelchair-accessible seating is often near the back of the house or far on an aisle to allow for more space.) “For me, having a seat up close is really important if I go see a show, because I will see more,” Sabaugh says. But the cost of front row orchestra seats is prohibitive, and other accessible measures, like audio-described performances or touch tours of a set, are not always commonplace.
“There is not a lot [of] Off-Off- or Off-Broadway that caters to a blind or low-vision audience,” Silverstein says, citing his team’s research throughout the production process. “There seems to be a push on Broadway, and that’s fantastic, but there’s so much more theatre.”
Interestingly, Keen estimates that the costs of implementing an audio-described performance and a captioned performance for Deaf audiences are roughly the same; the availability of the latter, Silverstein thinks, comes from the popularity of sign-language productions like those of Deaf West, whose signing Spring Awakening performed on the Tony Awards broadcast in 2016.
“Signing is something that an audience can appreciate as an art form in and of itself,” Silverstein says, likening it to choreography. He and Sabaugh feel that sighted people haven’t considered that audio description could also be an art form. “People are too scared of not having vision, so we don’t even understand how to have that conversation,” he suggests. Silverstein hopes that the illuminative text of Friel’s play and ongoing vision accessibility efforts of organizations like Theatre Development Fund (TDF) can draw more attention to the creative possibilities of audio description.
Fear of the unknown is a key theme both for the characters of the play and for audiences, in a time when the fear of our own mistakes and assumptions can be overwhelming. But Friel’s play allows for a moral in-between that is perhaps a more authentic representation of life. “Often we think in terms of good and bad, and right or wrong, and what’s so beautiful about this play is that it’s neither,” Silverstein says. As the characters navigate the space between these poles, as well as between sighted and blind, free and contained, Molly becomes yet another woman whose decisions are made for her by the men in her life. Both sighted and blind, she straddles the liminality that all modern women experience to a degree, living a life that is at once both liberated and controlled.
Sabaugh believes that although Friel was not blind, his attention to detail and care for his characters made Molly just as accessible to him as she is to someone with low vision or blindness. And while her status as the only low-vision or blind actor to play the role may come with the pressures of representing a community, Sabaugh doesn’t fear typecasting after more than 20 years in the theatre. “I’m happy to claim it,” she says. “Let’s shift the whole thing, so rather than saying it’s narrowing, it’s expanding.”
Throughout the run of Molly Sweeney, Keen Company will offer touch tours, audio described performances, Braille programs, large print programs, digital programs, downloadable recordings of actor biographies, and a downloadable top-of-show description for performances that are not audio described. A full schedule of accessible performances is available here.
Molly Sweeney is written by Brian Friel, directed by Jonathan Silverstein, with set design by Steven Kemp, costume design by Jennifer Paar, lighting design by Anshuman Bhatia, sound design by Fan Zhang, prop design by Ricola Willie, accessibility consulting by George Ashiotis, production stage management by Rachel Gass, press by David Gersten & Associates, and casting by Judy Bowman.