Now my memory must also make room for Sheen’s Frank, an interpretation that grounds the character in a grimy reality in ways I hadn’t thought possible. First seen weaving through a row of empty chairs, booming out the names of Welsh towns he visited on his healing tours, he exudes the stale aroma of an old-time vaudevillian’s greasepaint.
A barrel-shaped figure in a much-worn black suit, overcoat and fedora, his face half-covered by a grizzled beard, he would appear to be a posturing mediocrity, a mountebank with a smooth line in Irish gab. Then the camera moves in on his face, and you see something unspeakable in the eyes — fathomless pain and self-loathing and, yes, a glint of the ineffable, of genius, perhaps, that this shabby, middle-aged man can’t begin to make sense of.
Frank has the first and last monologues of “Faith Healer.” And the presence established by Sheen in the opening scene justifies the accounts of the two other characters in the play. That’s Grace (a superb Indira Varma, as a woman turned into an unstanched wound by a lacerating love) and Teddy (a cozily louche David Threlfall).
Not that the details match up in these characters’ anguished, faltering recollections of the bleak life they shared on the road, and its horrible and somehow inevitable conclusion. On the contrary, facts both trivial (who chose the music for Frank’s performances) and monumental (births, deaths) tend to change according to who’s telling the story.
But still, the sometimes sadistic but irresistible man Grace could never leave was palpably there in Sheen’s initial portrait. So was the none-too-bright, rather ordinary fellow described by Teddy, the Frank who turned into a figure of magnificence on those rare, outrageous occasions when he became what his advertisements said he was. And you understood why these three people, who were destined to wreck one another’s lives (and knew it), nonetheless had to stay together.
As is the custom of Old Vic: In Camera (whose earlier, starry offering have included Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs,” with Claire Foy and Matt Smith and Stephen Beresford’s “Three Kings,” with Andrew Scott), there is very little scenery, but then there has never been with “Faith Healer.”
It takes place in the endless and open darkness of recollection, where the events and faces and words of another time keep changing shape. (The lighting, by Tim Lutkin and Sarah Brown, summons that dark realm beautifully.) In a way, it’s about how every one of us is an artist by default, reinventing the world each time we remember something.
If I saw a recording of this production at some point in the future, I think I’d discover it wasn’t quite the way I’ve described it here, after all. The singular blessing of live theater, which I have so cherished during my 27 years at The Times, is that it insists you learn to live with the memories of it, which are as mutable, perplexing and endlessly revealing as life itself.
Performed Sept. 16-19; oldvictheatre.com