96. I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW (THE WHEELCHAIR ON MY FACE)
As a child, Sonya Kelly had terrible eyesight, measured at 20/900, which would probably be considered legally blind. According to her one-woman play, in which she both wrote and stars, she so cleverly masked her disability that her physical ineptitudes were chalked up to her clumsiness, not her vision, until she’d been in grade school for three years. When her eyesight finally was diagnosed professionally, she was fitted with a pair of what we used to call coke bottle lenses (her play’s title refers to the image of a wheelchair on her face). Her kid’s joy at being able to see, however, was mitigated by her vanity about having to wear such heavy, unattractive eyeglasses. Later in life, she had an operation that allowed her to wear more normal spectacles, which is what she employs in this 55-minute recounting of her youthful experiences, brought to New York from its original staging for Ireland’s Fishamble: The New Play Company. The production, winner of the Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2012, is part of Origin’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival, now current in New York.
Ms. Kelly is a pleasant, fairly ordinary looking young woman the traces of whose myopia are still present in her slightly cross-eyed gaze. She has a lively, mildly engaging personality, and in telling her tale uses a variety of voices to portray the grownups and children who misunderstood or taunted her. Her story is filled with personal anecdotes of what it was like growing up with her face practically pressed against everything she wanted to look at. Among her memories is her childhood passion for Abba’s music (snatches of which we hear), and her wish when she was able to get glasses that they be the large sunglasses the group wears on one of its album covers. Ms. Kelly was lucky to have a condition that needed only a simple eye test (recreated in the narrative, using a large eye chart), followed by a fitting for glasses, to rectify. This makes me curious as to how irrevocably sightless people who may have seen (heard) the piece have reacted to her satirical commentary on the casual way people use the concept of blindness in their daily discourse. Examples from the script: “Oh my god, she’s so blind. She’s like really good looking and he’s so not,” or “Oh my god, I’m so blind. I walked into my own reflection and called myself an asshole for not saying excuse me. I really was so blind.”
The writing and performance, given on a bare stage with only a white folding table, have a lighthearted vivacity but, for all the strenuous efforts of Ms. Kelly and her director, Gina Moxley, to wring humor out of the material, the results are anything but hilarious. Nor, I'm afraid, does the occasional attempt at poignancy pluck one's heartstrings. Sourpuss that I am, I barely laughed, only managing to force a smile now and then so that Ms. Kelly, performing in the tiny Theatre C at 59E59, might not be too depressed if her now improved vision allowed her to spot my glum expression staring at her from the third row; it would take a sight more cleverness to cure all this play’s comic blind spots. I’d like to report that the audience picked up my slack in the mirth department, but, apart from some murmuring chuckles now and then, few eyes were smiling, Irish or otherwise.