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O’Neill at the Irish Repertory Theatre

Reviewed by Yvonne Shafer

 

Take Me Along, directed by Charlotte Moore. The Irish Repertory Theatre, New York, NY, February 20 - May 4, 2008.

The Irish Repertory Theatre is enjoying a great success with a revival of Take Me Along. This is a musical based on Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! which was originally produced on Broadway by David Merrick in 1959. Many O’Neill fans are not even aware of this play and therefore it is of particular interest that the Irish Repertory theatre is reviving it. The production has been so successful that the run has been extended twice. It has also been nominated for both the Drama League Award and the Drama Desk Award for Best Revival of a Musical.

William Parry as Nat Miller headed the excellent cast. He has appeared in many plays and musicals ranging from Saint Joan to Gypsy and has frequently appeared on television and in films. He was so engaging as the loving father and husband that I wished I could see him in a production of Ah, Wilderness! He was very amusing in the scene in which he endeavored to explain the “birds and the bees” and the problem of “bad”  (“well, not bad, you understand, but well…”) women to his son Richard. He was charming singing how he was “Staying Young” when those about him were growing old and he was delightful doing a soft shoe dance and singing “Take Me Along” with Uncle Sid. Don Stephenson, another talented and experienced actor, was excellent in this key role that was originally played by Jackie Gleason. He managed to combine the pain and poignancy of an alcoholic newspaperman unable to win the spinster schoolteacher Aunt Lily with the comedy that makes everyone love him. In his drunk scene (in which he makes a shambles of the lobster dinner) he was hilarious. The entire cast was good with only eleven actors taking all the roles. My only quibble was that I thought that the redheaded Beth Glover as Aunt Lily looked more like one of the “swift babies” from New Haven was speaking than a disappointed spinster schoolteacher described by O’Neill as often looking melancholy.

With one major exception librettist Joseph Stein kept to the play O’Neill wrote. However, for O’Neillians, the musical is a little frustrating as scenes begin with O’Neill’s dialogue, tantalizingly delightful, and then must eliminate most of the lines because of time constraints. The one major change in text occurs at the end of the play when a reformed Sid is going back to his job in Waterbury and a high-spirited Lily appears with a suitcase singing “Take Me Along.”

Of course, the average viewer today doesn’t know Ah, Wilderness! well, if at all. The sorrow of the failed relationship which is such a significant part of the play (and which pre-figures the relationship in The Iceman Cometh) plays no role in the usual viewer’s response to the play. So the charming story line enhanced by exuberant songs and dances creates a fine evening in the theatre. Eugene O’Neill was actually very fond of music and of musical comedies. He often attended them when he was at Princeton and as a young man in New York. Undoubtedly he would have enjoyed the vigor and vibrancy of the title song “Take Me Along” and he would certainly have laughed at the lyrics of the song Belle sang in the barroom of the Pleasant Beach House including “If Jesus Don’t Love Ya, Jack Daniels Does.”

It is quite certain that O’Neill would have admired and encouraged the Irish Repertory Theatre. Naturally, it is well known that he really insisted on Irish actors playing the Irish roles in his plays and the names of the Irish actors in the program would have delighted him. Ciarán O’Reilly, Des Keogh, Brian Murray, and Sinead Cusack could only have warmed his Irish heart. He would have totally approved of the mission of the theatre. Ciarán O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore established it in 1988, beginning with a production of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. The mission was

To bring works by Irish and Irish American masters and contemporary playwrights to American audiences. To provide a context for understanding the contemporary Irish American experience. To encourage the development of new works focusing on the Irish and Irish American experience, as well as a range of other cultures.

How that calls up to mind such plays as A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions.

The theatre itself is reminiscent of the Provincetown Playhouse. It seats only 137 and the fact of the audience being on two sides of the stage gives an important proximity to the acting so all of the seats are good. The theatre has presented a wide range of plays for eighteen years including those of Shaw, Synge, Brendan Behan, Wilde, and Brian Friel. Of course they have presented O’Neill, but I was surprised that in that time only Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Hairy Ape have been performed. Perhaps this pseudo-O’Neill success will encourage them to turn more fully to the greatest Irish-American playwright and give us some marvelous Irish actors in his plays.

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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