It is always with anticipation that I look forward to a new staging of a play by Eugene O’Neill, especially one that is announced as “rarely produced.” A Touch of the Poet, written in 1943, was, according to Wikipedia, part of a projected cycle of eleven plays that would chronicle an American family starting in 1828. Only A Touch of the Poet and More Stately Mansions were completed and they were first produced posthumously in 1958 and 1967, respectively.
A Touch of the Poet is a tightly written, four-scene drama that occurs in Melody’s Tavern outside of Boston on the morning of July 27, 1828, during the lead up to the election of Andrew Jackson, which is referred to several times in the script. The presidential campaigns of that year were contentious and notoriously “dirty.” Perhaps the current political climate led Pacific Residence Theatre to choose this rarity for production.
Major Cornelius “Con” Melody (Matt McKenzie) is a piece of work. A stiffly arrogant man who boasts of his martial past, especially proud that he was honored for his bravery in Spain by the man who became Lord Wellington. He has the pretentions of a “gentleman” and consistently claims that status despite the humble origins of his father. Settling in America, he was fleeced by Yankees when he bought the tavern, which has been a losing proposition ever since. He treats those closest to him with contemptuous hauteur, especially his faithful wife, Nora (Julia Fletcher), who fawns on him and takes the abuse as her due. His daughter, Sara (Julia McIlvaine) is made of stiffer stuff and chafes at the behavior of her father with a resentment verging on hatred. His women are reduced to cook and waitress, while he rides about on a thoroughbred mare he can’t afford to keep, while drinking whiskey day and night to the point of delirium tremens.
The core conflict in the play, other than that which resides within in the character of Major Melody, is the burgeoning love between Sara and the unseen Simon Harford, a dreamy, wealthy young man recovering from a fever in a room upstairs. She loves him deeply and sees him as her one chance to escape into the bliss of love, while Melody sees it as an opportunity to coax money from the wealthy family.
Mr. McKenzie is fine as Melody, the mercurial poseur and abuser who frequently pleads that he didn’t mean it, that “it was the drink talking.” He is bi-polar that way. He talks himself up in a mirror quoting Byron, to remind himself of his exalted station in life. Ms. Fletcher is superb in portraying Nora as a loving woman of saintly poise who takes all the wretched abuse and pain as her lot in life with an unaffected nobility, while maintaining a deep and abiding love for her husband. As Sara, Ms. McIlvaine is a fierce, determined young woman with a superior intellect. She plays with unaffected passion and her culminating speech near the end of the play is a tour de force. This nuclear trio fuels the play with an ardor that commands attention.
The supporting cast is terrific. John Dittrick as Mickey Maloy, for my money the most likeable character in the play, projects the easy-going bar man as a cheerful enabler, pouring whiskey as the solution for whatever ails a person. Got a hangover? Hair of the dog. Emotionally upset? Toss down a shot. Brendan Farrell as Jamie Cregan, the Major’s army subordinate, is loyal to a fault, taking the abuse of his superior with grit and a certain level of fierceness.
O’Neill writes some characters in what modern ears or eyes might call gross stereotypes. As whiskey-swilling, clog-dancing, loud-singing, brogue-speaking, quick-tempered Irishmen, Ron Geren as Paddy O’Dowd, August Grahn as Dan Roche and Dennis Madden as Patch Riley more than fill the bill with their lusty enthusiasm.
One can see where the never-to-appear, offstage character, Simon Harford, might have gotten his dreaminess in Dalia Vosylius’ rather modern portrayal of his mother Deborah, who stops in to check on her son and advise him to go slow with his infatuation with Sara. And Anthony Foux is spot-on in his cameo appearance as the Harford’s lawyer, Nicholas Gadsby.
O’Neill’s language is always sharp and exact and his penchant for writing in dialect is well known. The cast is to be commended for the excellent dialect work.
There are reasons that this play is seldom produced. The exposition of character and situation in the first two scenes tends to drag, however, in the third and fourth scenes the action picks up and rockets to a fine climax with a satisfying dénoument. The play, written in 1943, might try the patience of modern women, although the dominance of men over women is still and, perhaps, always will be, contested. The fight for equal rights and respect is ongoing.
Directed with finesse by Robert Bailey in PRT’s intimate forty-seat theatre, A Touch of the Poet runs through December 18 at Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice, California.