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Beyond the Horizon -- Boomerang Theatre Company

Reviewed by Glenda Frank

 

Beyond the Horizon, directed by Cailín Heffernan. Boomerang Theatre Company at Center Stage (48 W. 21st St.), New York, New York, September 8-26, 2004.

As a veteran drama critic, I’ve discovered that staging any classic without a new vision is a disservice to the work, but small New York theatre companies are by definition daring and they lure in many a critic by producing works that are rarely seen, like Beyond the Horizon. The play has always seemed to me like the experiment of a young genius orchestrating the tools of Naturalism. O’Neill’s first Pulitzer Prize was a remarkable act of foresight. In his 1920 review for the New York Tribune, Haywood Broun noted the “signs of clumsiness because the young man has not mastered the tricks of his trade but [the play] deserves attention.” In the New York Times, Alexander Woollcott recognized it as “One of the real plays of our time. At times impracticable and loose, but a tragedy of the misfit which in mood and austerity has seldom been written in America even half so good.” The play opened on Broadway in February, 1920 and ran a respectable 111 performances. The last major production, in 1926, lasted 79 shows. A 1974 revival at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, NJ, was praised by Clive Barnes for “stammer[ing] out miracles.”

Anticipating another fumbling revival, I arrived at Center Stage with sluggish steps. But the Boomerang Theatre Company’s staging of Beyond the Horizon was a delight and taught me to see the familiar play with new eyes. The young, non-profit company compensated for its limited budget and experience with creativity and insight. All theatre is collaborative, but the guiding hand of Cailín Heffernan, the Founding Artistic Director of Manhattan Dance/Theatre, was the special ingredient in this production. Her extra-literary expertise in movement, blocking, and the adaptation of visuals for thematic development served the play well.

Since the characters on the page are not completely believable, presenting the first scene well is critical Throughout the drama, O’Neill works the contrast between land and sea, which also informed the early one-act sea plays and, more subtly, “Anna Christie.” But in BTH the conflict remains between absolutes. Extremism is often the stuff of tragedy, but Rob’s situation lacks tragic scope. On top of that, his sudden decision to scrap his dream and betray his brother by marrying Ruth and devoting himself to the farm that he is at best indifferent to is dramatically too precipitous. But Boomerang convinced me – without any suspension of disbelief.

In gesture and attention, Peter O’Connor’s Rob seemed alive, not two-dimensional. He held the small book he was studying with the casual reverence of a man for whom reading is a passion, not an escape, and his talk about the world beyond the horizon was a wistful prayer punctuated by magical words: Yokohama, India, South Africa. But his fervor was not focused; it spilled over when Jennifer Larkin as Ruth arrived. While they spoke, his fantasy of travel wrapped itself around her, confusing the two dreams – and no wonder. Larkin’s voice, style, and appearance reminded me of Sarah Jessica Parker, who is seducing millions of television viewers as Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City.” Larkin has a voice that implies more than words, making me think of Daisy Buchanan in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Deeper into the play, when the passion between Rob and Ruth had died along with the daughter who linked them and their hopes for success with the farm, we (the audience) -- and Rob -- could still feel her vibrancy. She remained an important stage authority throughout although O’Neill in his stage directions had her fading “dully” into the “sad humility of exhaustion.”

In the segment when Ruth convinced Rob to remain on the farm, Cailín Heffernan took her hint for blocking from the text, translating what Michael Manheim identified as the language of kinship into movement. This restrained push-and-pull allowed the inexperienced actors to complement their readings with body language that mirrored the characters’ emotions. At one point, Ruth, convincing Rob to stay, slowly backed him against a wall – so that the beat ended with more hint of passion than entrapment. After his confession of love, he grew speechless while she became rushed and articulate. When she stepped away from him, he moved toward her. There was no doubt that this was a love scene. This balancing prepared the audience for O’Neill’s alternation of indoor and outdoor scenes throughout the play, a hint of O’Neill’s growing curiosity about Expressionism, a genre in which the set reflects the inner turmoil of the protagonist.

The director was also highly creative in her use of proximity as a thematic tool. Her dance training most likely inspired the slight delays that allowed O’Neill’s ideas to penetrate. In the opening dialogue between the brothers, Justin G. Krauss as Andy was both laconic and an eloquent physical presence. When Andy mentioned Rob’s ill health, Rob, in rebuttal, took some friendly jabs at him, just long enough for us to absorb this new information and re-evaluate the brothers. Later, when Rob and Ruth announced their engagement and Rob’s decision to remain on the farm, Krauss moved from a silent, central position, where he had been mending a piece of farm equipment, to various points on the periphery of the gathered family. You could almost hear his brooding. He retained presence, and ironically only lost it when his father erupted in rage at Andy’s decision to take to the sea.

This fury was Ron Sanborn’s (as James Mayo) moment, and he easily atoned for his earlier indifferent performance. Sanborn adopted an Irish cadence that so fit O’Neill’s language that the majesty and poetry of betrayal flashed from the small stage. Heffernan placed the most affecting love relationship between Andy and his dad. When old Mayo joined the brothers on the knoll in the first scene*, Krauss instinctually stepped close to him, a gesture of familiarity and comfort. It was obvious that Andy and his father loved and respected each other, and the father’s eruption into violent speech in Act I was part of this clear arc. Although old Mayo has died by Act II, the arc was retained by Ruth’s fantasy of Andy as a savior, and was completed in the final act, when Andy returned to discover his brother dying. The brothers sat close to each other at the kitchen table, their postures implying an emotional bond (a belonging) that was absent from the domestic scenes between Ruth and Rob. It was now Ruth who was excluded from the small family circle although Larkin held her own. The subtleties and complexities of this staging all benefited the text.

Heffernan used several techniques to draw the audience into the play. The line readings were natural and contemporary, which is not always the case with revivals of O’Neill. The opening sound of the play was a lowing of cows, just enough to stimulate the imagination. Before James Mayo arrived, we heard the sound of horses and one of the boys announced, “Here comes Pa.” (*This early encounter of father and sons is not in Act I.i of the Library of America edition of BTH.) In the final scene of the play, O’Connor murmured Rob’s lines so low that the audience had to bend toward the stage to hear. The whispering created a remarkable transformation. Since the staging ran close to three hours, the audience had become restless. O’Connor pulled them back while Larkin and Krauss’s powerful reactions to Rob’s dying held them, and the play closed with strong affect. The final scene, O’Neill’s reworking of the closing scene of Ibsen’s Ghosts as the dying Rob waits for the sunrise, repositions the death of the invalid as a release and blessing on Ruth and Andy rather than the heavy hand of fate felt by Mrs. Alving. When Rob proclaimed that going to far-off places “was always the cure for me,” there was more welcome than resignation in O’Connor’s voice, which eradicated much of the excessive melodrama from the scene and offered closure.

The visuals were conventional but effective. Set designer Harlan Penn used a two-tiered wooden floor, synthetic rocks, and a five-panel pictorial backdrop for the outdoor scenes, the panels turning to indicate either the arid farmland below a blue sky or the Mayo dining room. The outdoor pictorial seemed to belong to an old-fashioned melodrama, which was a mistake. Instead of following O’Neill’s directions for the interior, however, Aronson provided a cheery scene -- curtains, a solid table with chairs and a china hutch -- while conveying “the orderly comfort of a simple, hard-earned prosperity.” Later, the presence of the portly, impeccably groomed tuberculosis specialist (John C. Fitzmaurice) hired by Andy threw the whole into a cramped dinginess. I could feel myself longing for the space and light of the outdoor scene. My guess is that designer Carrie Wood was crafting magic with the lighting. In other shoe-string productions I’ve seen, Rob’s escape to the open field was simply a scene change, not a mood shift.

Designer Cheryl McCarron paid attention to details in both the costumes and the text. Rob opened the first scene in a tie, shirt, and suspenders. The long sleeves of Andy’s shirt were rolled up, the collar open. Ruth wore a pink dress and ribbon. The Captain’s uniform was not impressive so it blended in with the other costumes. By Act 11, Rob was the one with rolled sleeves, open collar and suspenders. He complained about a hot day, and he looked flushed and sweaty. (Wonderful effect! His wheezing and labored breathing in Act III were also impressive.) He was not listless (O’Neill’s stage directions) and he became enraged when Ruth mistreated their daughter. When Andy returned, he was resplendent in a natty uniform, complete with a knotted tie; it was not the “simple blue uniform and cap of a merchant ship’s sailor” that the playwright described. This Andy was far more comfortable with his lines. The wheelchair that Ruth’s mother was confined to was a clumsy antique, a real find and a reminder of how much the premise of BTH owed to Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. (O’Neill, of course, did Wharton one better by saddling Rob with three women – one aging, one nagging, and one crippled and nagging.)

Beyond the Horizon is a Naturalist machine tragedy, so the play creaked in sections despite the best efforts of the Boomerang troupe. But there were moments when it and Rob sounded remarkably contemporary. After Ruth had berated him for running down the farm, Rob retorted, “Say a word of encouragement once in a while when things go wrong, even if it is my fault. . . . With your help, I can do it. With you against me --.” His rejected offer to make his own lunch and clean-up when he arrived late had a contemporary sound, making him even more sympathetic.

This production has been criticized for not bringing home the pathos of Rob Mayo's life and death, but I felt it -- and more. Boomerang offered us the tragedy of a beautiful soul buffeted by fate, losing everything and still remaining compassionate. I had assumed before my visit that if Andy had remained on the farm, he would have been happy, but after seeing this production, I’m not sure. When Robert says to Ruth, “And now – I’m finding out what you’re really like . . . It wasn’t that I haven’t guessed how mean and small you are – but I’ve kept on telling myself that I must be wrong . . . ,” he is talking about life on the farm. At the heart of the play is the desire to soar and the bitterness of the compromises the characters make by trading down for love. Ruth’s choice of Rob, the dreamer, was her confession of her longing to escape. If Ruth is read as the villain -- and the play implies this in sections -- then Rob has no tragedy. But if his final acknowledgement is that (farm) life made them both suffer, his wish for her happiness is transcendent, not simply forgiveness. At the end, O’Neill brings us two adults who must remake their lives, burdened with self-knowledge and guilt. My thanks to Boomerang for the insights.

[Robert Mayo is named Rob in the program; Andrew, Andy.]

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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