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A Touch of the Poet
by Rob Kendt

©2005 Joan Marcus
Gabriel Byrne in
A Touch of the Poet
These days Studio 54 feels a bit like the belly of a ship with a storm raging outside, and not only thanks to Santo Loquasto's imposing, desolate set for the new revival of A Touch of the Poet. This cavernous interior is unmistakably the site of a battle, with a mad captain at the helm, a crew on the verge of mutiny, and dry land nowhere in sight.

At other times this stony stage looks and sounds much like an Irish country tavern from a play by Synge or O'Casey.

Actually, of course, the setting is a New England inn in the late 1820s, and it's a play by the thoroughly American Eugene O'Neill. But in anatomizing the ruin of an impoverished, deluded former major in the British Army, Cornelius Melody (Gabriel Byrne), O'Neill cast characters as sovereign as states into conflicts as immortal as myths--you know, his usual deal--and injected a shot of brogue among a set of immigrants from the Emerald Isle. Director Doug Hughes' rock-ribbed new production is frequently as bracing as a late-night nip, though its deepest pleasures are more slow-blooming--more subtle mist than blarney stone.

At first blush this seems a blatant star turn by Byrne, an actor with a Mount Rushmore face and the sort of darkly radiant presence that can focus attention on the smallest, stillest moment even as his character is blowing full steam. Hughes' staging seems to emphasize Byrne's centrality. Not only do the Major's dramatic entrances and exits get full attention from everyone onstage; his every speech and silence garners the rapt absorption of his doting wife Nora (Dearbhla Molloy), his sarcastic but attached daughter Sara (Emily Bergl), and army buddy Jamie (Byron Jennings).

Byrne's Major is very often literally center stage, either holding forth from a chair like the nobleman he fancies himself, or admiring his still-sparkling Army uniform and officer's profile in a large mirror. When he needs a brooding timeout, he retreats to a barren aerie upstage left that might as well be a cliff on the moors.

Story continues below

But this monomania is true to the play's theme: the prison of self-made manhood and the heavy maintenance such a cell requires, particularly from those who, like Nora and Sara, have locked themselves in with the Major and his corroded fantasy world. While Nora clings to him with a fierce, masochistic devotion despite his whiskey-fuelled abuse, Sara openly sneers at his pretensions but continually finds herself sticking up for them.

©2005 Joan Marcus
Dearbhla Molloy & Emily Bergl
in A Touch of the Poet
The red-cheeked Molloy and the staunch, nervy Bergl hold their own with Byrne's expertly modulated performance, which maintains the spotlight but refracts it into many shades of pomp and despair. The reliable Jennings gives his scenes an un-showy relish, and supporting players Daniel Stewart Sherman, Ciaran O'Reilly, and Randall Newsome season a few scenes with piquant Celtic flavor, complemented by David Power's doleful Uilleann pipes. Walking away delicately with one brilliant scene is Kathryn Meisle, as the mother of Sara's young Yankee sweetheart. She breezes in like an emissary from an enemy camp and tidily delivers a cautionary dissertation on trusting men's dreams to the baffled, threatened Sara. It's a signature strength of the production that while Meisle inarguably shines, Bergl's almost painful attentiveness gives her the light, and lends the scene a querulous suspense.

Not every exchange here quivers with such tension, and that's as much a fault of O'Neill's overly calculated theatrics as of Hughes' occasionally stilted direction. Scenes that might flow from reverie to revelation, particularly in the drawn-out second act, are instead prone to wobble. And certainly the play's final, transfiguring turn is more satisfying conceptually than emotionally. A Touch of the Poet may best be enjoyed as a sort of landlocked sea shanty--a well-told tall tale about a tarnished hero and the women who loved him too much.

A Touch of the Poet
By Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Doug Hughes
Studio 54

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 12/8/2005 2:00:00 PM


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