By Judd Hollander
Eugene O'Neill's words touch the heart in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work Beyond the Horizon, a terribly haunting tale of three people battered and torn apart by the winds of love. Sadly, the current revival of the play at the Irish Repertory Theatre offers a somewhat stilted approach to the material.
In 1907 Massachusetts, Robert Mayo (Lucas Hall) is spending his last night at the family farm before shipping out to sea with his uncle, Captain Dick Scott (John Tomas Waite). Sickly as a lad and always with his nose in a book, Robert would much rather quote poetry than till the soil, and is looking forward to his upcoming adventure and the chance to see new lands. In this, he is quite the opposite from his older brother Andrew (Robert Brogan), a farmer through and through, and someone quite content to stay in his own backyard. Andrew's ties to his home is the main reason their father James (David Sitler) is content to allow Robert to go on his voyage, despite the misgiving of the boys' mother Kate (Johanna Leister).
Everyone's plans are set asunder by the actions of Ruth Atkins (Wrenn Schmidt), the childhood friend of Robert and Andrew when, after Robert reveals the true depths of his feelings to her in a burst of youthful impetuousness, she announces she feels exactly the same about him. Overcome with joy, Robert puts his dreams of travel on hold, opting instead to stay at home, marry Ruth and learn to be a proper farmer. Meanwhile, the now-shattered Andrew who, like Robert, has secretly loved Ruth for years, decides to take Robert's place on board ship, a decision leading to a violent alteration with James, and a harsh reality check with Robert.
It soon becomes apparent Robert is not cut out for the farming life. Although his intentions are honorable and his efforts valiant, everything he touches seemingly starts to fall apart. While the family holds on as best they can, they eventually look to Andrew for salvation; hoping he can pull them out of their increasingly desperate situation upon his return. However Andrew may have other plans in mind now that he has seen the world and the opportunities it offers.
Beyond the Horizon is a play that has all the makings of a terribly tragic tale of choices made and their resulting consequences. The story wonderfully embellished by the brilliantly nuanced lighting by Brian Nason, and original music and sound design by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab respectively. Yet the passion of the story is partially strangled by the so-so direction and lackluster performances of several of the main actors.
The first flaw is Brogan's interpretation of Andrew, a simple fellow whose conversations tend to be on the short side and who doesn't believe in descriptive passages in his letters. Yet there still needs to be a depth of passion in the character, which is not the case here, his words all too often sounding monotone and flat. True, Brogan does get into a fierce confrontation with his father in Act One, but he never reaches that level of intensity again, offering instead a sort of by-the-numbers performance, one which rarely allows the audience see any trace of excitement, pain, loss or anger as the story progresses.
Schmidt displays similar problems as Ruth. Her performance is good in the beginning as a young woman in the bloom of first love and the wonder it brings, but her later actions as someone beaten down by life come off more dull than world-weary, and lifeless rather than tinged with bitterness or resentment. This is especially true in the final moments of the play where she repeats one line over and over again, but in a manner so completely devoid of feeling or inflection, it loses all meaning.
Hall on the other hand is quite powerful as Robert, allowing the character to see the endless promise the world has to offer while longing to venture away from the only home he has ever known. Even when times get hard and he's almost crushed by his numerous burdens, he never completely loses touch with his inner child, although his wonder is replaced at times by a terrible sense of pain and loss. Robert is also the only one of the three main characters the audience can continually emphasize with; the failure to do so with the others cutting the potential emotional depth of the work by more than half.
The supporting characters all work very well. Waite is fun as the uncle, a sea-going rouge, if a bit stereotypical; Patricia Conolly is excellent as Mrs. Atkins, Ruth's wheelchair-bound mother, a malicious sort who can't resists one verbal dig after enough against those she disapproves of. Indeed, her venom is so pointed, one feels the urge to throttle her at times or at least run as far away from her as humanly possible - an option Ruth, as the dutiful daughter, does not have. Leister is nicely earthy as Kate, a woman who just wants to keep her family together at any cost; while Sitler lends a stern patriarchal air as the boys caring but somewhat obstinate father. Aimèe Laurence is very appealing as Mary, the daughter of Ruth and Robert, though she looks to be a bit older than the approximately three year-old girl she is supposed to be playing.
Direction by Ciarán O'Reilly is not nearly as strong as it could be, it being unable to bring out strong enough performances from two of the lead players. Just as glaring is the weak delivery of much of the text, O'Neill's powerful descriptions failing to leap off the page, though the ultimate power of his words is still quite evident. Look for some of Robert's early speeches to really show the multi-faceted tone of the writing.
The set by Hugh Landwehr works well, offering an alternatively open and confined atmosphere, thus helping to set the mood which matches the overall tone of the piece.
A valiant effort by the Irish Repertory Theatre, this production of Beyond the Horizon falls rather short in its efforts, and not measuring up to the potential the play has to offer.
Beyond the Horizon
by Eugene O'Neill
Featuring: Lucas Hall (Robert Mayo), Rod Brogan (Andrew Mayo), Wrenn Schmidt (Ruth Atkins), John Thomas Waite (Captain Dick Scott/Dr. Fawcett), Johanna Leister (Kate Mayo), David Sitler (James Mayo), Patricia Conolly (Mrs. Atkins), Aimèe Laurence (Mary), Jonathan Judge-Russo (Ben)
Directed by Ciarán O' Reilly
Set Design: Hugh Landwehr
Co-Costume Design: Linda Fisher and Jessica Barrios
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Original Music: Ryan Rumery
Sound Design: M. Florian Staab
Hair and Wig Design: Robert-Charles Vallance
Props: Deirdre Brennan
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Casting: Deborah Brown
Production Stage Manager: April Ann Kline
Assistant Stage Manager: Rebecca C. Monroe
Press Representative: Shirley Herz Associates
The Irish Repertory Theatre
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or http://www.irishrep.org/
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes
April 15, 2012