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A journey into sight

"Molly Sweeney" was penned by the greatest living Irish playwright, maybe the greatest playwright working today, says Doug Warner, director of Next Stage Repertory's production of "Molly Sweeney."

Brian Friel, in the great and ancient tradition of storytelling, explores the tale of a woman who has been blind since birth. When she suddenly regains her sight, it makes an understandably huge impact on her husband, her eye doctor and herself.

"Molly Sweeney" will play at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 31 to June 2, at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. Tickets cost an affordable $10 — priced in part to reach new audiences, Ashland theater lovers and "hardcore theater people in general," Warner notes.

The play was mounted with longtime Rogue Valley favorite Presila Quinby in mind for the title role, Warner adds.

"She's the consummate professional, an epic character of the highest quality, and she has a great ear for the dialect," which is Northern Ireland with a Scot flavoring.

Mystical in the tradition of Irish storytelling, but also grounded in science, the play is a metaphor for the question of whether we sighted people really see anything — and what it's like to really see — meaning, to understand what we see, Quinby says.

"It's the most challenging thing I've ever done in my career," Quinby says. "There are 12 monologues, with no blocking to guide me. I'm telling all my friends, if you never see me do anything else, come and see this. What a role. It's like a young actress getting Juliet."

Friel's spare, two-act play, a series of monologues from Sweeney, her husband, Frank Sweeney (Warner), and her opthamologist, Dr. Rice (John Leistner), may not sound as compelling as a big comedic musical.

"But if we can get people to their seats, it's guaranteed to bring them out of their seats at the end," Warner says.

Molly Sweeney has been blind since the age of 10 months and, as a result, has had to develop a lot of personal strength. Dr. Rice offers a new, seldom-tried eye operation that may or may not help. When it restores her vision, the result is a lot of major life transformations for her and those around her, Warner says.

"This is in the greatest tradition of storytelling. It goes back to the beginning of time. It can be challenging for audiences who need to see scenery and all the rest," Warner says.

There is considerable comic relief that comes from the husband, an auto-didact (self-taught Jack of many trades) who wants to tell you all about it.

"It's difficult for me, not being able to look at the audience or have facial expressions or body language," Quinby says. "Blind people don't pick those up. But Molly doesn't feel sorry for herself. She has a great sense of humor and is at home in her world."

However, the surgery plunges her into a world — the one the rest of us live in — where she's never seen a flower bloom or a bird fly, and her eyes function much like a kaleidoscope.

"Molly finds herself on a brand-new planet," Quinby says. "Just ask yourself how you'd feel and if you'd be freaked out."

Without giving away the ending, Warner says the play unveils inner transformations of all the characters.

"It's very unexpected how she copes with each new development," he says. "Molly becomes a master of her own fate, making her own choices."

Like "Wait Until Dark," which also has a blind female lead, "Molly Sweeney" leads audiences out of the darkness into an uplifting conclusion, Warner says.

Tickets are available at the Craterian box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., online at www.craterian.org or by calling 541-779-3000.

Presila Quinby plays Molly Sweeney, John Leistner plays Mr. Rice and Doug Warner plays Frank Sweeney in Next Stage Repertory's 'Molly Sweeney.' - Photo by Jamie Lusch