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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 9


Beyond the Horizon

Reviewed by Yuko Kurahashi
Kent State University

Beyond the Horizon, directed by Celeste Cosentino. Ensemble Theatre, Coventry Building, Cleveland Heights, Ohio. April 25 - May 18, 2014.

The Ensemble Theatre's Beyond the Horizon tells the story of the spiritual, physical and material deterioration of the Mayo family over eight years, using projections as one of the key stage elements.

The premiere of the playwright’s first full-length play on Broadway in 1920, which won him a Pulitzer Prize, transformed O'Neill from a Provincetown Players' writer to one of the major American playwrights of the early twentieth century. Critics of the time were fascinated by this tragic saga which contains many challenges and problems in staging. In his 1920 review, Heywood Broun of the New York Tribune stressed that O'Neill deserved attention although he saw some "signs of clumsiness” because “the young man has not mastered the tricks of his trade" (New York Tribune, 4 February 1920) and in his review for the New York Times in 1920, Alexander Woollcott wrote that the play was “possessed of elements of greatness” in spite of “all its looseness and a certain high-and-mighty impracticability” (New York Times, 8 February 1920).

The play is well-structured with a simple plot line which documents an eight year period on the Mayo Farm in Massachusetts beginning in 1907. The central character, Robert Mayo, is an amalgam of O’Neill and his imagination. The play addresses the question, what if O’Neill did not have a chance to live—on and off—in New York for five years? What if O’Neill had not been sent to Central America by his father James, who sought “the gold-mining potential of a family investment property in the Spanish Honduras” (Roger J. Stilling, Dictionary of Literary Biography)? What if O’Neill had not joined the crew of the sail-driven cargo ship Charles Racine for a 65 day, 5,900-mile voyage from Boston to Buenos Aires? The character of Robert is an O’Neill without these experiences in foreign lands and at sea. Instead, O’Neill gave, in the play, these adventures to the character of Andy, Robert’s elder brother.

The source of this question of the effect in changed circumstances for O’Neill is based on his conversations with a Norwegian seaman whom he met on the Charles Racine. In a letter sent to a friend of O’Neill (published in the New York Times in 1920), he stated that he had been inspired by a Norwegian A.B. whom he met on the British tramp steamer. O’Neill described it as follows: “The great sorrow and mistake of his life, he used to grumble, was that as a boy he had left the small paternal farm to run way to sea. He had been at sea twenty years and had never gone home once in that time. I don’t imagine he had written home or received a letter from there in years” (“A Letter from O’Neill,” The New York Times, 11 April 1920). O’Neill described this seaman as a “bred-in-the bone child of the sea,” in “perfect harmony with his environment”; with “his feet on the plunging deck, he was planted like a natural growth in what was ‘good clean earth’ to him” (Letter, 11April 1920). What attracted O’Neill was the way this man “cursed the sea and the life [which] had led him—affectionately” and how much “[he] loved to hold forth on what a fool he had been to leave the farm.” This Norwegian fellow became a model for both Robert and Andy Mayo in Beyond the Horizon.

In the first act of the play, Robert and Andy make a tragic mistake on the evening before Robert’s departure for the East on a ship with his uncle. Andy has not questioned his life as a farmer on the Mayo farm. Robert, a poet and dreamer, has aspired to see the world beyond the horizon especially after his father made him leave college for financial reasons.

Yet, in spite of his genuine love for adventures and freedom, Robert is turned from his course by what to him, at that time, seems his love for the daughter of a deceased neighbor, Ruth Atkins. Not being able to bear the idea of his younger brother marrying Ruth, whom he secretly loves, Andy decides to take the place of Robert and sets out to the sea. The consequences of these decisions are demonstrated in the tragic ending; when wasted by the tuberculosis and hating his confinement in a small bedroom to die, Robert crawls out to the country road running by the farm to see, for the last time, the horizon. Andy then accuses Ruth, of causing his brother’s death because she has confessed to him that she had told Robert that her marriage to him was a mistake since she never loved him.

In the small theatre space in the Coventry Building in Cleveland Heights—the home of Ensemble Theatre―the vast yellow fields, interior of the house, and the sunset of the play’s scenes were projected on the backdrop. Additionally, instead of using a child actor for the role of Mary, Robert and Mary’s infant daughter, director Celeste Cosentino and projection designer Ian Hinz used film footage to illustrate interactions between Robert (James Rankin) and Mary (Catherine Elersich).

The use of cinematic techniques in the production is in line with O’Neill’s own life -long interest in the cinema and his “interest in discontinuous space” as used in film (Richard Hayes “Towards a ‘New Stage Craft’: Eugene O’Neill and Some Aspects of the Early Narrative Cinema” Eugene O’Neill Review 31 (2009):51). Drawn to cinematic possibilities, O’Neill alternates, in Beyond the Horizon, between indoor and outdoor scenes. This results in a sense of discontinuity as well as extended breaks between scenes. This is what Alexander Woollcott, in his review in February 1920 for its Broadway premiere, criticized: “Certainly it was a quite impractical playwright who split each of these three acts into two scenes, one outside and one inside the Mayo farmhouse.” (New York Times, 8 February 1920).

Considering this impractical scene locations in each act, the choice of Ensemble Theatre to use of projections provides a practicability that O’Neill’s script lacks. It also solves one of the biggest problems for a small theatre company--an infant actor, thus overcoming another of the “impractical elements” of O’Neill’s dramaturgy. The original production used a “ten or twelve” year old actress named Elfin Finn to play the two-year-old Mary, according to Woollcott.

Yet the projected still and moving images added a sense of dissonance with the time period of the play. The moving images also added an eerie ambience which may not be suitable for the production of O’Neill’s classic, since his world is, no matter how we stretch our imagination, is not a gothic romance or occult one. For example, the image of "Mary"—much larger than an actual girl—suddenly appeared on the backdrop, crying “Dolly, Mama! Give Mary Dolly,” creating a rather chilly, Bröntian or Joyce Carol Oatesian moment. The still image of the house interior failed to serve the purposes of the play, since according to the script, the interior is supposed to show a gradual decay, reflecting that of the characters.

Besides being overpowered by the projections, the lighting was one of the weaker elements of this production; it was too dark (especially upstage) to see the actors' expressions. In addition during the entire show, two spots in the auditorium were lit, illuminating the backs of two patrons. I anticipate these concerns will be addressed as “things to improve” (i.e., lighting fixtures might have been placed too low to keep enough throw distance) in the future of this small but important regional theatre company in Cleveland.

The strongest element of this production was the ensemble of the talented actors. Emily Pucell’s portrayal of Ruth showed her change from a cheerful, healthy young woman to a tired and depressed farm-wife, whose hope is to “redo” (undo) her mistake by pursuing a strong, and reliable Andy played by Keith E. Stevens.

James Rankin (Robert Mayo) and Keith E. Stevens (Andy Mayo). Photographs by Celeste Cosentino.

James Rankin (Robert Mayo) Emily Pucell (Ruth Atkins).

Rankin’s Robert and Stevens’s Andy demonstrated changes over time in appearance via costumes and make-up but they could have showed, more vividly, internal conflicts of these characters in each scene. Robert Hawkes—who played the role of James O’Neill in the Ensemble Theatre production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 2005—convincingly portrayed the patriarch in his last bastion, the Mayo Farm. Valerie Young’s Katie Mayo portrayed motherly concerns for her younger son and keen insights in Act I, and her compromise and self-deception in Act II.

As the first show of the 2014-15 season Ensemble Theatre will stage O’Neill’s Anna Christie, directed by Ian Hinz (set and projection designer of this show). I look forward to the opportunity to attend another master piece of O’Neill, which premiered in November 1921, less than two years after the opening of Beyond the Horizon.


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