By Karen Isaacs
The Irish Rep has, once again, produced a fine streaming production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet. This was another of the shows that was in rehearsals last March.
The play, which was not produced until after O’Neill’s death, fits into a specific genre of dramas, one that is often seen in Irish plays. The genre is about a character, almost always male, who has delusions of grandeur involving either his past or future and the women who both cater to it and are destroyed by it. A substantial amount of alcohol is usually involved.
In A Touch of the Poet, the man is Captain Cornelius Melody, who once served on behalf of the English in Portugal and Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. That is true; he did serve with apparent distinction and was an officer. It is also true that he grew up in Ireland with money and an education. He forgets that his father ran a shebeen (an unlicensed pub) before making a small fortune.
But Con, as he is called, no longer has the money; he has immigrated to Boston and owns a run-down tavern which makes little money, mostly likely due to his consumption of the product. But he has maintained the belief that he is “gentry” and therefore obviously above the other Irish residents; he even feels better than the longtime New Englanders, no matter how wealthy. His wife Nora, whom he regularly insults for her lower class origins, tries to placate him and cater to his every wish. His daughter, Sara, waits tables but is much more o to the sham of his pretentions.
With that as a backdrop, the play focuses on Con finally being forced to see reality. His daughter has been nursing in an upstairs room, a young man who went, Thoreau-like, to live in the nearby woods and became ill. They fall in love and she sees a way out of her life; the young man comes from a wealthy New England family.
You can be sure that it will end with not only Con’s dreams shattered but hers as well.
Poet is the type of play that many modern women find exasperating. Con is a bully; he bullies Nora because he “had to” marry her when she became pregnant. Obviously, it was all her fault. But he also bullies her because he views her as “beneath” his social station. Yet Nora loves him and takes the verbal abuse while helping him maintain his illusions. She is the one who keeps the tavern running – cooking, cleaning and more.
Though Sara is very aware of her father’s failings, in some sense she too is driven by illusions and dreams; hers are that she can move up to a more luxurious life.
Poet is about how we all have illusions about ourselves, fantasies that we come to believe and dreams that are impossible. Removing these, not matter how self-deluded or destructive they are, can destroy the individual.
Director Ciarcán O’Reilly innately understands the material and helps his fine cast to portray it. Robert Cuccioli blends Con’s bluster and ego with an underlying hint of self-awareness. You sense that he realizes his fall in stature and that he is, in so many ways, ridiculous. When he goes into one of his cold, mean-hearted and cruel rants to both Nora and Sara, you feel absolute hatred for the man. But Cuccioli also understands that this a man driven by self-hatred and doubt, not only of him as an individual, but as an Irishman in Boston.
Kate Forbes as Nora is fine, walking the line between loving spouse – she remembers him as the handsome, vital young man he was – and punching bag for his failures. She forgives and forgives because she “loves him.”
As Sara, the daughter, Belle Aykroyd has some difficulty blending the multiple sides of Sara. She is aware of her father’s delusions but plays into them; she has her own delusions but doesn’t recognize the difficulty in achieving them; she is subservient; she is conniving; and she is a young woman whose heart is broken.
The cast was filmed in a number locations from South Dakota to Germany, but you would never be able to tell it from the fine video editing. The play is contained mainly in one room of the tavern designed by Charles Corcoran with period costumes by Alejo Vietti, sound by Michael Florian and lighting by Michael Gottleib.
A streaming production may never give you the same experience of seeing it live, the Irish Rep has once again managed to come very close to it.
While this is no longer available, visit the Irish Rep to learn of upcoming productions and events.