REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE
5. A TOUCH OF THE POET, directed by Lloyd Richards. Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, CT, May 3-21, 1983.
Of the handful of O'Neill plays that are regularly performed, A Touch of the Poet is my playgoing favorite. It may not equal in richness the interpersonal complexities of the family quartet in Long Day's Journey, nor achieve the visceral impact of Jim Tyrone's tragic confessions in Moon for the Misbegotten, nor reach the comic heights of Sid's dining room antics and the bittersweet futility of his relations with Lily in Ah, Wilderness!, nor evoke the influence of the natural environment that is so power-fully italicized in Desire Under the Elms. But each of these other plays has a liability that can undermine its theatrical impact. Long Day's Journey, without an ideal cast, can be a long journey indeed. Moon is more an act of exorcism (the playwright's as much as the male protagonist's) than a story, despite its maze of tricks within tricks, and could be anathema to any latter-day Aristotelian. Ah, Wilderness!, though critics have persuasively anatomized the darker interior of its text, remains a touching but oh-so-cute idyll on its per-formable surface. And Elms, for all its classical ancestry, stumbles precariously in the dialectal gaucherie of its trans-plantation. Touch may have comparable flaws, even worse ones; but I have always found it near perfect on stage, in its telling of a story (a complete one, despite its cycle connections) that descends from irresistible comedy to—if not tragedy, at least a pathos that is extremely moving, as Con Melody's sustaining illusions are relentlessly ripped away, leaving him the shell of a man, whose brokenness is tempered by the indomitable dedication of his long-suffering wife and counterpointed by the new-found strength and ambition of his daughter.
So when the Yale Rep announced that it would conclude its 1982-83 season with A Touch of the Poet (the first O'Neill production in its seventeen-year history), my hopes were high. And the hopes proved to be justified, thanks to the skillful direction of the Rep's artistic director Lloyd Richards; an appropriately high-windowed and dark-wooded set by Wing Lee (an M.F.A. candidate at the Yale School of Drama); and a capable cast of students and professionals headed by George Grizzard, one of America's finest actors, who thoroughly refuted my assumption that all future Con Melodys would pale beside the triumphant performance of Jason Robards on Broadway a few years back.
Grizzard, gray-haired and stiffly formal at his first entrance, captured all the nuances of the play's tragi-comic hero. Touching in the moments when he's "far away in spirit," resplendent when preening in his scarlet uniform with its gold sash and tassels, moving in his recitation of the Byronic leitmotif, heartless in his patronizing cruelty to Nora and especially to Sara, pathetic in his confrontations with the two intruders from the Harford world: the actor revealed every stone in the Melody mosaic. And when he returned from the offstage fracas in Act Four—with blood smeared on his right cheek and the glaze of death in his eyes; his once-proud uniform now unbuttoned, its left shoulder torn, and stripped of all but one of its tassels; his vocal brilliance descending to incomprehensible mumblings after his first two speeches, and then rising again to the true ring of grief as he described the death of his beloved mare—Grizzard dampened many an eye in the silent playhouse, despite a wavering brogue in which "surely" came out as "Shirley" and "ease" didn't come out as "aise." (The last, however, was the fault of the playwright. If Jamie Cregan can say "you're takin' it aisy" in the play's fifth speech, then surely or Shirley!—the neo-Celticized Major of Act Four wouldn't say "I intind to live at my ease," as O'Neill has him say. Here, fidelity to text overcame fidelity to characterization!) Grizzard was splendid. The play is ended, but his Melody lingers on!
Which is not to say that this was a vehicle or one-man show. David Thornton was an easy, natural, likable Mickey Maloy; dependable Rex Everhart, eyes mischievously agleam, highlighted the hypocritical, Joxer Daly side of Paddy O'Dowd; Bryan Clark (whom many U.S. televiewers will know as the recent foister of Folger's instant coffee on unsuspecting restaurant patrons) was hissably pompous as Lawyer Gadsby; and Barbara Caruso frequently threatened to steal the show as Con's unappreciated but indomitably proud and loving wife. Clumping about in a way that explained, but hardly justified, Melody's snide references to her bog-trotter past, Caruso's Nora was clearly the person who had kept the Melody home together, playing along with any role her husband chose to adopt, and doubtless ready to do so again, once Act Four's shattering reversals are over. Her reaction, when she finally realized what Sara had been doing upstairs, brought down the house; and her tender scenes with Mickey and with Sara showed her softer side and were a model of ensemble performance.
If there was one flaw in this otherwise excellent production, it was the absence of that last-mentioned quality in two of the performers—Katharine Houghton as Deborah Harford, and Julie Fulton as Sara—who seemed to have happened in, respectively, from the dissimilar and non-O'Neillian worlds of Oscar Wilde and Oscar Hammerstein. Floating into the tavern under a giant bonnet and parasol like a pristine porcelain shepherdess, Houghton's Deborah was sunnily charming when greeted by the Major, with no initial suggestion of haughtiness—betraying even a hint of coquetry, to which Melody understandably but unwisely responds. Nothing wrong there; quite in keeping, in fact, with O'Neill's initial description of her. But her counter-response to the Major's advances—"You are insolent and disgusting!"—drew a laugh from the audience. And that seemed inappropriate, given the character and circumstance. O'Neill says she speaks the line with "withering contempt," but Houghton's contempt was too aloof—too much a matter of artifice, and not the genuine article. Granted, Deborah Harford is a fey visitor from "another world," but it should not, perhaps, be the world of high comedy. Nevertheless, her recital of the history of the early Harfords, which is crisply comic in the writing, fitted the Houghton style perfectly and, delivered in a voice somewhere between those of Billie Burke and another Katharine—Hepburn—was one of the evening's choicest delights.
Julie Fulton's Sara began effectively, slamming doors as an evidence of her vibrant pride, and managing successfully the alternations between American speech and a half-willful, half-involuntary brogue. But the transformation when she returned from the offstage kiss with her beloved Simon in Act Two—giggling, skipping, beaming, and hugging her mother in girlish glee: that transformation was overdone, and the performance moved temporarily from the world of O'Neill to the world of conventional musical comedy. (One expected a rapturous song—"Simon Kissed Me," perhaps!) However, when she chased the barflies out in Act Three, and reacted with pain and fury to the studied cruelty of her father, she regained her believability, though she never suggested the cooler, scheming side of Sara, which must be made clear if the character is to be anything more than a shallow, petulant ingénue.
But these are quibbles, and neither actress's performance dimmed the. sheen of a memorable production. I look forward to future forays into the O'Neill repertory by the Yale company. Given Lloyd Richards' clear understanding of O'Neill's art, and the proximity of the Beinecke collection, O'Neill should be a staple of every Yale Rep season.
—Frederick C. Wilkins
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