Thanks to Pacific Resident Theater, we have a rare chance to see Eugene O’Neill’s last completed play, A Touch of the Poet. First written in 1935 as part of an unfulfilled 7-play cycle dealing with the fortunes of two clashing New England families, Poet centers on one of the most vivid characters in all of O’Neill: a vain, swaggering Irishman, Major Cornelius Melody (Matt McKenzie), who had served in Wellington’s army and now, in 1828, was reduced to running a sleazy saloon near Boston.
The Major, still clad in perfectly cared for army uniform, lords it above his wife, Nora (Julia Fletcher), and daughter, Sara (Julia McIllvaine), spitting curses at the Irish labourers who frequent his saloon. Although he wrecked his own chances in civilian life with his intemperate behavior—gambling, dueling, drinking—he still thinks of himself as a hero. When alone he likes to admire himself in the mirror as he quotes from “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”: (“I have not loved the world, nor the world me; I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bowed to its idolatries a patient knee”). McKenzie brings the Major to life with power and skill, brilliantly capturing his vainglory, self-delusion and numerous other tragic flaws.
Fletcher and McIllvaine give equally strong performances as the women in the Major’s life; the former is prematurely aged from worry and overwork, yet still selflessly devoted to him; the latter, though, sees through her father’s pretensions, his posturing.
The “poet” in the play’s title is Simon Hartford, the idealistic scion of an upper-class New England family—and a would-be writer. Now ill in an upstairs room of the saloon, young Hartford remains an unseen presence, but his budding romance with Sara triggers the drama of the story, the inter-family feud, the clash between Old World romanticism and the pragmatic, ambitious spirit of young America: the historic forces which O’Neill so desperately wanted to dramatize in his ambitious play cycle, only to be thwarted by illness and old age.
PRT has honored O’Neill with a strong, bold production of A Touch of the Poet, one that goes deep into the play’s complex texture and ambiguities.
John Dittrick, Brendan Farrell, Julia McIllvaine, Julia Fletcher, Matt McKenzie, August Grahn, Ron Geren, Dennis Madden, Dalia Vosylius, Anthony Foux. Understudy for Sara: Annika Foster
Set and Lighting: Dan Volonte; Sound: Keith Stevenson; Costumes: Audrey Eisner & Sarah Zinsser; Stage Manager: Julianne Figueroa
Critic: Willard Manus
Date Reviewed: November 2016