REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE
2. A TOUCH OF THE POET, directed by Dorothy Schechter. The Concord Players, Concord, MA, April 22 - May 7, 1983.
What better place to stage A Touch of the Poet than in Concord, Massachusetts, a town that bears such a close resemblance to the village Con Melody and company inhabited? That O'Neill intended the connection, in fact, would be hard to deny, if only because of the remarkable similarity between Thoreau's experiment at Walden Pond and Simon Harford's idealistic lakeside venture. But, despite the more than appropriate setting and their town's rich literary tradition, the Concord Players' production fell short.
One wonders, above all, about the direction. Where was it? The cast was capable and energetic, the set top-drawer. But dramatically, there were numerous loose ends. It was as if the actors had simply been left on their own to hack their way through the play without any directorial orchestration or insight whatsoever. Instead of being involved meaningfully with each other, they remained divided, trapped inside their respective roles.
Bob Asher's grandiloquent interpretation of Con Melody was decidedly weak in emotional depth and texture. While Mr. Asher could handily boom out his lines, he was unconvincing in conveying Con Melody's less stentorian sides. If anything, Major Melody is a bewildering array of emotions, prejudices and memories, requiring subtle and sudden changes in mood and tone to convey. Mr. Asher seemed to be inextricably hooked on the Major's pompousness, so much so that he preened, strutted and flaunted, whatever the circumstance. For the play to work, Con has to be more than an out-of-touch, grandiloquent windbag. That Mr. Asher was not asked to temper his performance for the sake of trying to get at the more complex sides of Con, was one of the major directorial faults of the production.
Nora Melody, played by Dorothy Santos, was the one major character in the play who really came off convincingly. Years of abuse from Con Melody, scrounging for a living and playing second fiddle to a horse, really showed on this Nora's haggard face. One found her weariness and subservience to Con a bit cloying towards the end of the play, but we have the playwright himself to blame in large part for that. Had O'Neill put more into the role, Miss Santos, no doubt, would have done much more with it, as she revealed a deep understanding of Nora.
Sara Melody and Deborah Harford, played by Donna Tyrrell and Susan Ellsworth respectively, emerged as unresolved characters. Here again, direction was an issue. The complexity of Sara and the muffled eccentricity of Mrs. Harford were handled gingerly and from afar, which made things like Con's untempered booming all the more obtrusive and annoying. Had Con been more recognizably human, the audience's chances of seeing a more believable Sara and a more interesting Mrs. Harford would doubtless have been increased.
Joseph Finneral seemed very much at ease in the role of Con's old comrade in arms, Jamie Cregan. And Jack Sweet, as the partying Paddy O'Dowd, was delightfully impish and beguiling. Whenever Paddy was on stage, he stole the show with his irreverent asides and wild, elfish looks.
Speaking with a brogue is an important element in A Touch, and everyone who was required to speak with one did so convincingly and effortlessly—an achievement that must have required not a little practice and preparation. The set, designed by Ron Placzek, was very sturdy looking and handsome, though Con's magic mirror should perhaps have been larger. For someone with the Major's pretensions, a glass of ordinary size is an inexplicable act of modesty.
The Concord Players' production of A Touch of the Poet bore more the stamp of the histrionic, disjointed O'Neill than of the daring, innovative and complex one we justly celebrate. There can be no denying that the play is a knotty one to put on, but that is all the more reason why informed—if not inspired direction is a must. Otherwise, the ham-handedness of the playwright will inevitably destroy the poet's touch.
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