Eugene O'Neill

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“Beyond the Horizon” at Tao House

Reviewed by Stephen A. Black


BEYOND THE HORIZON, directed by Andrea Gordon.  The Old Barn, Tao House, Danville, California, September 20-29, 2002.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting for O’Neill’s first major play, Beyond the Horizon, than the old barn at Tao House, O’Neill’s home in Danville, California, where the playwright lived from 1937 to 1943.  The first production in 1920 was plagued by many problems for which reviewers blamed O’Neill’s supposed inexperience, including the fact that the play ran more than an hour longer than was necessary. O’Neill changed the set from inside to outside the Mayo’s farmhouse each scene, and each set change required a twenty minute intermission.)   At Tao House the problem was solved by the set design of Marcel Cacdac and Stephanie Forster (the Production Manager) who simply divided the playing area in half: on the audience’s right, the parlor; on the left, the farm outside.

I saw the Tao House production twice, on the first and third performances, and was greatly impressed, both by the production in general, and by the growth of the cast members into their roles by the third performance. Much credit must go to Andrea Gordon, the director, who also directed A Moon for the Misbegotten for last year’s Festival at Tao House.  I understand that the cast had been able to work together only about two weeks before the opening night, and it showed.  By the third night, the performances were just terrific.  It will run three more times this weekend and should be even better, judging by how much more deeply the three main actors had gotten into their parts by last Sunday.  Most of my remarks below refer to the third performance.

The shorter roles were played well.  Joe Lucas performed well as both Ben, the hired hand, and as the doctor who predicts Robert Mayo’s imminent death in Act III.  Don Wood was heartily convincing as Captain Scott, Mrs. Mayo’s brother.  Susan Abbott and Robert Ernst were excellent as the senior Mayos; I heard several people praise Mr. Ernst’s performance after Andy evokes his father’s wrath by deciding to leave the farm and go to sea, and I agree with their estimate. Ms. Abbot has no scene as intense as Mr. Ernst’s , but she was strong and effective whenever she was on stage.  As the infuriating, whining Mrs. Atkins, played by Molly Goode, I can only testify that a gentle lady sitting near me whispered to a companion that she wanted to “get after that woman in the wheel chair with a two-by-four.”  It was a relief to see Ms. Goode, at the curtain call, smiling and able-bodied.

O’Neill puts great burdens on the the three principals, Robert, Ruth and Andy Mayo.  The actors have to convince the audience that they understand the meanings of the complex things they say, and make the audience understand also.  Whoever plays the wife, Ruth, gets little help from O’Neill in developing a complex character.  She is, at first, a naïve, small-minded girl who suddenly decides it’s really Robert she loves, not her intended, Andy, just as Robert is about to go away for a long sea voyage.  In act II, she is embittered and despises her husband; she pleads with Andy, home on a visit, to stay, implying that she will be wife to him. At the end she is a woman who has known the deaths of her father and mother in law, of her daughter, and her own mother, and has passed beyond frustration and anger toward the incompetent seeming Robert to – something else.  Jenny Lord was very convincing in the changes, and in conveying that even without Robert’s education or Andy’s worldly experience, she has learned more than pessimism and bitterness from the ordeal that her life and Robert’s has been.  She is an attractive and effective actor.

Kevin Karrick, an experienced Bay Area director and actor, did very well as the older brother, changing, with Andy, from a shrewd farmer at the beginning to an assured traveler and  veteran of the grain exchanges and trading pits, who has made and lost fortunes, and is appalled to come home and find his brother dying. Among other things he stands as the only major character with whom many in an audience will at first wish to acknowledge an identification.  He is the one on stage who perhaps seems most like someone we would like to know and whose judgment, in acts one and two we come closest to trusting.

The most demanding part is Robert, played by Daniel Bruno, a part-time musician in, apparently, his first leading stage role (he won a Theatre Critics Circle Award as chorus leader in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis last year).  A would-be poet, Robert learns from the misery of his life something that probably cannot be fully articulated, although O’Neill does a great deal with the character.  Sickly in his youth, apparently tubercular, Robert has no more feel for farming than Andy has for the poetic.  When the two have swapped places, Andy seems clearly the stronger and more adaptable.  But Robert’s harsh life has taught him one big thing and in the end it is seen to be more important than everything else: he has learned about the reality and meaning of death.  Robert has struggled haphazardly to make a go of the farm, fleeing into his books at every chance, and pouring into his daughter all the love that Ruth is too angry to accept from him.

O’Neill seems to show Ruth having, or at least showing, little feeling for her daughter or about the child’s death.  Perhaps she has felt rejected by her daughter since the child seems closer to her father.  Or perhaps she simply cannot acknowledge to herself all the things she must feel about her relationship with the child, or the loss.  Robert grieves openly and deeply, and does not resent Ruth’s seeming hardness.  The knowledge of death he has gained, from his own childhood illness, and from the deaths of his father and daughter, lets him accept, without visible denial or distortion, his daughter’s death, as well as his own failure in life, the unhappiness of his marriage, and Ruth’s contempt and bitterness.  It also lets himself accept without self-deception the recurrence of his own terrible illness.  Without money or other resources, Robert has no need for a specialist-physician to confirm what he knows, that the old illness has returned and that he is about to die, and Ruth understands as well.

Robert admires Ruth for the knowledge he knows she has gained.  At the end, she is not so afraid of another loss that she cannot be tender toward Robert or grieve his dying.  The audience at last is allowed to see that she has grown beyond the girlish romantic of the beginning and into someone who knows that there is no choice but to accept the large realities of life. As for Robert, we see him in his dying moments, rising to a completely unpredictable sort of heroism.  He insists that Andy must marry Ruth, not (as Andy assumes) to take care of Ruth, but because Ruth can teach Andy about suffering and thereby save him!

It seems puritanical at best, bizarre at worst.  Yet it is O’Neill’s great point. Robert believes that Andy’s latest business endeavor, speculating on grain futures, implies that his brother has removed himself from the world in which his knowledge gives him competence, to a world in which he believes that his past success proves he can succeed at anything, even guessing the future.

To bounce through life without ever having really known that life is temporary, and that we have far less control over our circumstances while we live than we can bear  to know, to live without the knowledge of human mortality and weakness, is to live with one’s eyes closed or to live as if one’s wishes could make things so.  That is part of the meaning of Robert’s last action, crawling out of bed and dragging himself outside to see one of the world’s great absolutes, the sun rising over the horizon.  More than once O’Neill denied being a pessimist. To choose the beginning of day for Robert’s last moment is an expression of the curious paradox that tragedy has always embodied: that confronting the limits of our being may bring a sense of discovery and sometimes, even, a sort of elation.

© Copyright 2002 Stephen A. Black.  Stephen Black is Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia and author of Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy.


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