Eugene O'Neill

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A Touch of the Poet

Reviewed by Yvonne Shafer


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

A new production of A Touch of the Poet is very welcome. The star of the production, Gabriel Byrne, wrote “It’s a very unappreciated play in the O’Neill canon. . . . I think it’s one of the most revealing plays about exile that I’ve ever come across. It’s also about marriage, passion, class, disillusionment and the waning of sexual power.” 

The highly anticipated production by the Roundabout Theatre Company is a marvelous ensemble production. It is well known, of course, how much importance O’Neill placed on having Irish actors play the Irish roles. This production is notable not only in the high number of Irish actors, but the range and depth of their experience. Byrne, himself, is a notable Irish actor, but his outstanding performance is by no means a star turn by a movie actor, but part of an excellent ensemble.

Dervla Molloy (Nora) has performed in productions at the Abbey Theatre as well as many plays in New York. She was an outstanding Juno in O’Casey’s play a few seasons ago at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Ciaran O’Reilly, in a smaller role, is one of the co-founders of the Irish Repertory Theatre. He has been honored three times with a Top 100 Irish-American Award—something that surely would have please O’Neill. The Irish actors and all the others have performed in theatres throughout the country in major roles. Emily Bergl (Sara) has performed in New York, at the major regional theatres, on television, and in films in plays ranging from Once in a Lifetime to Romeo and Juliet. Kathryn Meisle (Deborah) has appeared in Chekhov, Moliere, and various contemporary plays. In other words, this cast includes many actors of great experience who have received and  been nominees for Tony and other awards.

Similarly, the setting and costumes were designed by Santo Loquasto, a very respected set designer and costumer who has been nominated for or received nearly a dozen Tony awards. He followed O’Neill’s description fairly closely, but altered the divided room (similar to that in The Iceman Cometh) to create a single gloomily expansive room with some non-realistic elements. The back wall was simply a great expanse of grey on either side of the fireplace. This gave the sense of Con’s desolate world and was enhanced by the moody lighting by Christopher Akerlind. An important element was the old-fashioned oval mirror above the fireplace in which Con often preened and recited Byron.

Loquasto’s costumes were also very memorable. Con’s first costume fulfilled exactly O’Neill’s description: “He is dressed with foppish elegance in old, expensive, finely tailored clothes of the style work by English aristocracy in Peninsular War days.”  He looked ”still handsome” with “a ruined face which was once extraordinarily handsome” when he appeared in his white, gold, and red uniform. Sara in her Sunday best wore a charming white muslin with a flower print pattern with elaborate pleating and a touch of lace. It appeared very simple in contrast to Deborah’s elegant gown of several patterns of rich fabric in beige and gold tones. She wore an odd hat which she put on and took off several times and which seemed the perfect expression of her known eccentricity.

In addition to the setting and costumes, the music enhanced the shifting moods of the play. To O’Neill, the music was always an enormously important factor. This production began with an empty setting with no curtain into which came a rather melancholy figure with a bagpipe. He sat at the table and played music (composed by David Van Tieghem), and then the sounds of battle and shouting were heard—the battles of the past which still inform Con’s existence. The piper then exited and the play began. As in the script he also played music throughout the play. The sound effects of the crowd in the barroom, etc. were also very effective in creating the whole world in which Con is an exile.

All of these effects were the result of fine directing and interaction between the designers, the actors, and director Doug Hughes. He is best known now for his Tony Award winning direction of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. His work at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, in New York, and elsewhere earned him a 2005 Obie Award for Sustained Excellence. His sensitivity to and understanding of O’Neill’s script was evident throughout. Unlike many directors, he was clearly aware of the comedy in the play. However, he never pushed for laughs, but the audience was led to laugh throughout the play, even in the tragic last act. Half a dozen lines into the play the half-dead Cregan, seeking a bit of the hair act of the dog, scrounged a free drink and after taking a gulp said, “God bless you, Whiskey, it’s you can rouse the dead!” The audience responded with a great laugh and the play was on its way.

Whatever the merits of the total cast, the designers, or the director, this play cannot succeed unless the actor playing Con Melody has a full comprehension of the nature of the play, a fine voice, and the physical characteristics which attracted so many women and which, to some degree, draw in Deborah. Byrne. O’Neill perceived the character as a very complex, deeply unhappy, angry man, but said, “He’s vain, pretentious, a braggart, a concocter of yarns, a man who believes he is from a noble lineage. But inside is the soul of a man who has lost his way. All his melancholia and grief is waiting to come out of him.” Byrne’s experience with O’Neill began in Ireland. He remarked “in America he’s regarded as an American playwright. But in Ireland he’s considered an Irish-American playwright.”

Byrne was not initially drawn to acting. Instead, he planned to become a priest, but fortunately for the theatre, he was thrown out of seminary when he was caught smoking (the first good thing I’ve heard about smoking for a while.) After Dublin University College he worked in archaeology and taught Spanish and Gaelic! He finally joined the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin, following which he appeared in the U.S., notably in the recent A Moon for the Misbegotten for which he received a Tony nomination.

Byrne’s appearance is absolutely appropriate for the role O’Neill envisioned: with a face that “is still handsome—the face of an embittered Byronic hero. . . . His manner is that of a polished gentleman. Too much so. He overdoes it and one soon feels that he is overplaying a role which has become more real than his real self to him.” Additionally, he possesses a sexuality which is important in the role and which creates the momentary electricity between him and the high class Deborah. Their scene was fraught with many different emotions climaxing in the passionate kiss from which she pulled away saying, “Pah! You reek of whiskey! You are drunk, sir! You are insolent and disgusting!”

The play moved inexorably from this debacle to the final heart-rending scenes, with Byrne’s face bloodied and his gorgeous uniform torn and dirty. This production made us aware that the play is still vital and exciting. Set in 1828 and written in 1942, it still speaks to the audience about not only human suffering and the yearning for greatness, but also about political questions. As Byrne commented, “O’Neill isn’t known as a political writer. But that doesn’t mean he’s not political when he wants to be. There’s a line where Con says, ‘We live in decadent times. Everywhere the scum rise to the top.’ It’s a very slight political reference, but it’s one that some people could agree with today—the inability, the seeming powerlessness of the electorate to change anything. The sense that we, too, live in decadent times.”

Yvonne Shafer is Professor of Speech, Communication Sciences and Theatre at St. John's University, and author of Performing O'Neill: Conversations with Actors and Directors.


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