Eugene O'Neill

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An American Tragedy

Reviewed by Glenda Frank


A Touch of the Poet. Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, New York, November 11, 2005-January 29, 2006.

Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet is a powerful play in a gem of a production at Studio 54. Set outside Boston on July 27, 1828, it traces the final descent of  Major Cornelius  Melody and the rise of his headstrong daughter, Sara.  It is a tragedy  about the immigrant experience, a tale about  Irish nobility – not about kings but about the transcendent dream passed from father to child, and the price of that dream.

American drama prefers the domestic. Tragedy is rare. Influenced by classical Greek drama and Shakespeare, O’Neill changed the theatrical landscape by writing about the primal conflicts and bold passions hiding in the ordinary New  England landscape. But he also shared  his audience’s skepticism toward the heroic. So he blended in Con Melody greatness with grandiosity and buffoonery, splendor with absurdity and cruelty. Con, the owner of a  heavily mortgaged tavern, reminds anyone within earshot  that he was heir to an Irish estate and a commissioned officer with His (British) Majesty’s Seventh Dragoons in Spain. His philandering caused his dismissal from the army, his profligacy ended in bankruptcy, and in desperation he fled to America, where he was cheated. When we meet him, he is still playing the gentleman while his daughter and wife cook and waitress for paying guests. His choices are still costly, and these costs are the secret heart of the play. They are poignant, unsettling, and sometimes even contradictory. They make for fine drama.

Only a gifted performer can convey a tragic vision. He shapes our perceptions and imposes a tone. Gabriel Byrne is the quintessential Con Melody. He began his career in the Focus Theatre in Dublin and won Tony and Drama Desk nominations for his role as Jamie in  A Moon for the Misbegotten in 2000. Following in the footsteps of Jason Robards, who played Jamie in 1974 and the tavern keeper in 1977, the ruggedly handsome Byrne brings a lilt to the language and a delicate balance and authority  to a role that is often misunderstood and hammed up.

Byrne is a master of the understatement. Just watch his right hand. Even when Con is sitting quietly, reading the newspaper, his fingers confess an inner restlessness,  a secret torment. Or maybe it’s the beginning of delirium tremors. The performance raises its own questions about the character and draws us in with its subtleties.

In the second scene, Con’s pride, rage, and love are at war. Replacing his shabby frock coat with his resplendent uniform, he prepares to commemorate the battle of Talavera, Spain, which secured his reputation as an officer. Whip in hand, he stands tall while the spongers in grays and brown are seated at side tables. The uniform steals the light, proving that there is no one like him, and it defines his loneliness, especially as the scene descends into darkness with the drunks howling and cavorting like  Neanderthals while he sits in an arm-chair throne, lost in thought.

In the last scene, when Con returns, beaten by the police, his uniform tattered, Byrne dominates the stage with minimal dialogue and gestures, revealing  a man who in accepting public defeat has chosen an irrevocable spiritual descent. “For an actor,” Byrne told an interviewer from Playbill, “there’s nowhere to hide in his plays. You have to really go deep into yourself . . . .  [A Touch of the Poet] is one of the most revealing plays about exile that I’ve ever come across.”

The surprise of the production is Dearbhla (pronounced Dervla) Molloy,  an Associate artist of the Abbey National Theatre of Ireland. Much of the credibility of the play depends upon the casting of  Nora, Con’s self-contradictory wife whose faith in love is almost cultish. Molloy is a fiery Nora, whose hair may smell of onions and cooking grease but who lives by her husband’s dream. She is believable scrubbing the floor on her hands and knees – while his majesty drinks and derides politics; and she is compelling and affecting when she lectures her daughter about the power of  love to ennoble  our lives. Molloy can flirt (and shed decades)  with the mere twist of a shoulder.

Toward the end of the play, the playwright created a window into Nora’s life that is barely  more than a blink in the script. There is little dialogue. It’s a test for any director and performer. Nora is waiting the long night through for word of the duel she believes her husband is fighting. Molloy’s every movement is a testament to loneliness: the blowing out of the candles scattered around the room, the awkward, nervous walk, the uneasy stillness. Her Nora, like Byrne’s Con, draws us deeper into the play. The last stage gestures are hers. Con has taken on the brogue and exited to the offstage bar.  She folds and smoothes the damaged uniform with a lingering tenderness, as though it were a memory or an old love letter.

Emily Bergl isn’t as comfortable as Molloy, but she looks the role, doesn’t get lost in either the bossy or the starry-eyed Sara, and stays true to the complex young woman who is determined to marry well but not  to settle for less than  true love. Even in Sara’s final victory, when she receives her father’s blessing on her marriage, Bergl makes us understand Sara’s ambivalence toward paying the high price  in family pride.

The actors in minor roles were equally impressive. The lanky Byron Jennings as Corporal Cregan, Con’s cousin; Daniel Stewart Sherman as the generous bartender; and  the sophisticated Kathryn Meisle in lace gloves as Simon’s mother bring charm, humor and an earthy affability to the conflicts and flirtations. Meisle underplayed the mother’s eccentricities, missing a prime opportunity to steal the play for a few minutes and add to the texture of  the confrontations.

Santo Loquasto kept the stage design (and costumes) true to time and place, but he also played with metaphor. The center of Loquasto’s set is dark and low-ceiling (as O’Neill described it) but with a fieldstone fireplace and an oval mirror in which Con admires himself as he recites snippets from Lord Byron’s poetry. The mirror also reflects the audience so that in Con’s posturing, even with his back turned, he is distorted by the glass. To the left and right of the fireplace, above the tables, are open spaces, two stories high, large enough to hold Con’s past triumphs and his daughter’s ambition.

Sound design by David Van Tieghem added another dimensions, one O’Neill would have greatly appreciated. (The playwright had created  his own sound design in Mourning Becomes Electra.)  In the opening tableau, a dirty-looking man in  rags (David Power) plays the bagpipe. A hush falls over the audience as the ancient keening  fills the theatre. The tune is followed by off-stage sounds of  drums and  the neighing of horses – a  hint of armies on the march and a foreshadowing of  Con’s celebration of  Talavera. The design repeats with the additions of  Irish tunes from time to time, reminding us that this play is about worlds within worlds and unseen rooms.

Director Doug Hughes, the man behind it all, won his first Obie for directing The Grey Zone  in 1996, and in 2005, multiple awards (Tony, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics, and Callaway) for his work with John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. His A Touch of the Poet at  Studio 54 is another indication of  a  new breed of theatre people who are  re-thinking American drama for the twenty-first century.

Glenda Frank teaches theatre at FIT, SUNY, reviews theatre for Back Stage, and has received two NEH awards. Her articles have been published in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Jewish Women in America, The Eugene O'Neill Review, and Theatre Journal.


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