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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Molly Sweeney’ a dynamic theatrical ride in Sturgeon Bay

Critic At Large

Third Avenue Playhouse

Setup for “Molly Sweeney” production. (Screenshot)

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – You are driving along a country road you have never driven before. Everything is new – scenic, unknown and mysterious in a scary/wondrous way.

A man is standing at the roadside. He knows the way because he created the road. In words.

It is playwright Brian Friel, the reason to be of Third Avenue Playhouse’s latest online “PlayWorks 2021” play reading that Friday night offered his “Molly Sweeney.”

The piece is almost 2½ hours of writing by no normal mortal, not with the kind of confidence and courage Brian Friel unleashes.

A woman blind since infancy agrees to an operation at age 40 to bring her some sight. That’s the nutshell of the story.

But you’re on that country road of Brian Friel’s making. You meet only three people, each as complex as the next – and gaining complexity with every second or third sentence.

Karen Moeller as Molly. (Screenshot)

Molly Sweeney, working as a massage therapist, has met Frank.

Frank becomes her husband, for whom a little knowledge goes a long way. His fascination for so much includes Molly’s sightless world.

Molly and Frank trust in the skills of Mr. Rice, an opthamologist of repute now tucked away in Ballybeg, Ireland.

In turns, Molly, Frank and Mr. Rice tell their stories, sometimes telling on the others. Always, revelations trickle.

Who are they talking to?


This is a whopping display of theatrical storytelling that is akin to one of Albert Einstein’s equations.

Doug Mancheski as Mr. Rice. (Screenshot)

Molly, Frank and Mr. Rice were portrayed Friday night in the one-and-done performance by skilled professionals laying out layers of nuances and stacked-high character building. Robert Boles, who savors plays with meaty matters, smartly points the way on Brian Friel’s country road.

While the play is set in Ireland, the production dispensed with the accent. The play is about people, not Ireland anyway.

As Molly, Karen Moeller is a woman of strength in a world she engages by touch, hearing and any sense necessary to proceed. Extra skills came into play Friday night for Karen Moeller. In a technical flub in the Zoom presentation, she had to hold form when other character’s scenes popped onto the screen. An then, her turn returned, and she picked up on beat.

As Frank, Michael Herold is a bundle of energized verbiage that always leads to “dozens of mad schemes,” as Frank admits. It’s a supercharged performance.

Michael Herold as Frank. (Screenshot)

As Mr. Rice, Doug Mancheski is a kind of smarmy smarty, a gifted surgeon who has lost his beautiful wife to a colleague through a kind of neglect that is his habit – that leads to the habit of alcohol.

Being online, the performances were up-close, one-on-one by actors immersed into exceedingly multifaceted people. In the high-wire act are medicine and psychology and much tricky stuff of humanity. This was absorbing theater.

Third Avenue Playhouse’s play-reading series – extended this year for renovation of the theater and presented online because of COVID-19 – is a theatrical high-level treat every other week that often introduces works to this region.


Creative: Playwright – Brian Friel; director – Robert Boles


Molly Sweeney – Karen Moeller

Frank Sweeney – Michael Herold

Mr. Rice – Doug Mancheski


NEXT: “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow” by Rolin Jones, June 4.

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