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Theatre in Review: A Touch of the Poet (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Belle Aykroyd, Robert Cuccioli, David Beck, David Sitler, Rex Young. Photo: Carol Rosegg

At the Irish Rep these nights, you are invited to see a man's soul stripped bare. It's a methodical process, a kind of psychological surgery conducted with alcohol (albeit plenty of it) as the only anesthetic. The result is appalling, even grotesque, and yet I defy you to look away. A Touch of the Poet is often dismissed as second-rank Eugene O'Neill and yet, under Ciarán O'Reilly's muscular, pitiless direction, it emerges as one of the playwright's strongest statements on the illusions by which so many of us live -- the opiate nature that makes them essential and the havoc wreaked when they are proven false.

The play's title functions almost as a curse, at least in the case of the central character, Cornelius "Con" Melody. The owner of a rundown tavern in Connecticut circa 1828, he affects the manner of a British aristocrat, but his reality is far different. Born in Ireland to money, but not position -- his father, a friend comments, was "a thievin' shebeen keeper who got rich by moneylendin' and squeezin' tenants and every manner of trick" -- Con has lived a life of steadily accumulating losses, beginning with the death of his mother in childbirth. A potentially distinguished military career ended in scandal. Falling in love with the gentle Nora, he was cornered into marriage when she became pregnant; decades later, he treats her with equal parts affection and loathing. Emigrating to America, he was hoodwinked into buying an inn allegedly situated on a new coach line, ending up with a business slowly going bust. Barely getting by, beset by family obligations, a figure of fun to his customers, he views reality through the softening contours of a whiskey bottle lens.

As Con, Robert Cuccioli is a magnificent ruin -- walking unsteadily, his cheekbones bearing marks of lividity, his hands trembling with morning-after terrors; he struggles to pick up the day's necessary first drink. He's a man divided down the middle, pretending to a gentility that was never his, clinging to his one moment of glory in the Napoleonic Wars. Stuffed rather too snugly into his old uniform, he stares in a mirror and recites Lord Byron, insisting that he is still an officer and a gentleman. (Listen for the faint note of hostility with which he corrects anyone who fails to pronounce his last name correctly, stressing the second syllable; out of such details is his self-esteem maintained.) O'Neill often requires characters to execute hairpin emotional turns, a technique that Cuccioli has mastered, his detached, lord-of-the-manor air frequently giving way to outbursts of rage. A sweet moment with Nora shatters when he savagely mutters, "For God's sake, why don't you wash your hair? It turns my stomach with its stink of onions and stew!" A squabble with his daughter, Sara, ends with him lashing out at her "thick wrists and ugly peasant paws."

The three women who challenge and, ultimately, topple Con's sense of self are unevenly cast. Kate Forbes is a touch too youthful and nicely turned out as Nora, a woman ground down by years of poverty and contempt. The role has typically gone to more such matronly presences as Helen Hayes, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Dearbhla Molloy; Forbes, to be sure, has an appealingly lost quality that explains Nora's not-quite-blind devotion to Con, but she lacks a certain peasant quality. Belle Aykroyd's caustic, confrontational Sara grates on the ear at times, although the actress, making her New York debut, is a most effective counterpunch in father -- daughter confrontations. She also figures in one of the production's most indelible images, when Sara ascends the stairs with seduction on her mind. Still, as written, Sara is naïve, with romantic notions of her own, and a bit more lyricism and vulnerability would be welcome.

No such reservations are required for Mary McCann in a brief but dazzling turn as Deborah Harford, a wealthy recluse and professional ironist whose son, Simon, is stashed upstairs at the inn. Simon has abandoned his wealthy family to live, Thoreau-like, in a hermit's cabin, struggling to write. Having fallen ill, he is being nursed by Sara, who sees in him her ticket to respectability. Outfitted gorgeously and armed with a Mona Lisa smile, Deborah, using considerable wit and indirection, makes clear to Sara that marriage to Simon would be a disastrous misalliance. (Indeed, history is repeating itself: Sara, who scorns her father's airs, has fallen for the latest in a line of men who, Deborah says, "never part with their dreams even when they deny them." One Harford ancestor, permanently haunted by his participation in the French Revolution, couldn't be parted from his old uniform, just like Con.) Without ever raising her voice or dropping her polite façade, Deborah holds up Simon to ridicule, making clear that he is talentless and bringing Sara to tears of confusion. "I begin to resemble Cassandra with all my warnings," Deborah says with a little laugh. Actually, she's more like the Oracle at Delphi, enigmatic and filled with portents of dread. It's an unbeatable role and McCann triumphs in it.

Also making solid contributions are James Russell as the tavern's cynical bartender, Andy Murray as Con's long-ago comrade-in-arms, and John C. Vennema, oozing superciliousness as the Harford family's lawyer, who comes bearing a contract that will settle Con's debts if he takes his family and goes. The not-so-implied slight rouses Con to a fury that will lead to a brutal beating, a disastrous self-reckoning, and an act that, while not technically suicidal, might as well be.

O'Reilly gets gorgeous work from his design team, starting with Charlie Corcoran's set, depicting the tavern's gone-to-seed dining room, its gloomy, threadbare interior mitigated only slightly by paintings and a grand-looking mirror. The atmosphere is augmented by Michael Gottlieb's meticulous renderings of weak morning sunlight and, later, a shadowy, lamplit dinner. The costumes by Alejo Vietti and Gail Baldoni are accurate to the period, beautifully detailed, and thoughtfully conceived. (Compare Sara's best dress to Deborah's visiting ensemble and you'll instantly understand that these characters inhabit vastly separate worlds.) M. Florian Staab's sound design includes the noise of revelry in the adjacent bar; he also provides solid reinforcement for the keening piano-and-strings musical interludes by Ryan Rumery.

The sight of Con, bloodied and disabused of his grand manner, is terrible, ratifying the play's status as an authentic tragedy. It is only then, having committed a soul-slaying act of destruction, that he can show some real tenderness. At the same time, he has acquired a new brutality, and whether life will be bearable is an open question. As always in O'Neill's plays, dreams are a kind of sweet poison, but who can live without them? --David Barbour

(21 March 2022)

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