American capacity for tremendous achievement or tremendous despair were subjects that intrigued playwright Eugene O’Neill, whose own life encompassed both extremes. By elevating the 20th century out of vaudeville and melodrama, he earned unprecedented respect: three Pulitzer Prizes (a feat not equaled until Edward Albee’s third in 1994) and a Nobel Prize (still unequaled).
On the other hand, he was the son of an alcoholic stage star, trapped in a profitable albeit one-role career, and a mother who vanished into a drug haze while he was still young. His brother died after being admitted to a sanatorium with delirium tremens and of his three marriages, the final one to Carlotta Monterey was the least miserable, lasting through estrangement, her addiction, and his final debilitating disease.
His three children continued the cycle. Eugene Jr. killed himself in 1950 and James was disowned after being imprisoned for heroin possession. Oona, probably the only survivor, was disowned at 19 for marrying Charlie Chaplin when he was 54 (the same age as O’Neill).
This backstory is to illuminate the life that O’Neill simultaneously sought to comprehend, distance himself from and vindicate in his work. And how virtually impossible that task was. A Touch of the Poet, now in repertory at A Noise Within (in Glendale, California) through December 3, was intended to solve all these riddles. O’Neill started a massive play cycle, originally called Calms of Capricorn with Poet, set in 1828, as the first of nine plays. But O’Neill inserted two earlier plays to afford a broader portrait of America from the mid-1700s to the 1930s – coincidentally spanning the nation’s birth to its depression. Renamed A Touch of the Poet Series, it was finally named A Tale of Possessors Self-Disposed. It was to follow one family, the Harfords.
All this was nearly moot. O’Neill instructed Carlotta to burn the entire project – outlines, notes, drafts, and plays. A Touch of the Poet, which had been finished in 1939, then tinkered with until 1942, and an unfinished fourth play, More Stately Mansions, are all that survived. It did not premiere until 1958, five years after his death.
As it turns out, more than delving into America's psyche, Poet merely pokes at the embers of his own family’s burn-out. This play about the Harfords is in fact about the Melodys, who, like the O’Neills, were headed for self-destruction — making a multi-generational saga impossible — until daughter Sarah Melody falls in love with Simon Harford. Simon, a Thoreau-type writer staying at the Melodys' inn, is recovering from illness contracted while living near a lake to write poetry and journal entries. Though he is never on stage, his mother arrives to check out the family that her son has taken interest in.
To this enterprise A Noise Within gives a solid effort, with artistic co-director Geoff Elliott as Major Cornelius (Con) Melody and Brigetta Kelly as Sarah. These are the key combatants in this brutal portrait of a pompous, alcoholic father who lords over his family with a ridiculous self-importance based in long-past glories. After brow beating his passive wife (Deborah Strang) stoop-shouldered, he has now set to his child, as she has reached a marriageable age. In an echo of O’Neill’s father, Con recites lines from a single poem by Byron, wears his military uniform at important performances like a costume, and is hopelessly dependent upon and transformed by alcohol.
Elliott builds his performance on Con’s actor qualities, employing a stagy delivery that ultimately limits what he does. In addition to having a sameness — and even comic tone like Seinfeld’s Mr. Peterman — it acts to restrict his anger to bluster. When the lid should blow off -– as it inevitably does with violent-tempered men who think they are in control –- it remains a performance. There is, in fact, altogether too much affect in this portrait to be effective. It is a good establishing mode, but needs to fall away during those times when things — as they must — exceed his grasp.
As Sarah, Kelly can’t be faulted for her effort, but it remains a role that still has depth to be discovered. In the key supporting roles of Mrs. Melody and Mrs. Harford, Strang and Jill Hill are quite good, especially Strang, who despite an utterly passive role has more ground to cover. So effectively has Strang created a woman treated as a dog for so long that her hair and clothing look matted. Hill keeps her character properly eccentric and yet knowing. In a fine example her Mrs. Harford silently assesses Nora upon their meeting and, in a glance, understands the full dynamics of this embattled house.
Whether the Melodys and Harfords will intermarry is now conjecture. Understanding the big picture, we assume they must. Seeing this play, we have to wonder. Con does go through the kind of transformation O’Neill could only have dreamed of in his own family. At the end, he has been stripped of his artifice. It’s a glimmer of hope for O’Neill’s America, and hint of forgiveness for his family.
CREDITS: by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Michael Murray • A Noise Within • September 30 through December 3 (in repertory) CAST: Michael Matthys, Steve Rockwell, Brigetta Kelly, Deborah Strang, Geoff Elliott, Jill Hill, Tim Venable, Steve Humphreys, David Stifel, Mitch Edmonds. PRODUCTION: Michael Smith, set; Soojin Lee, costumes; Ken Booth, lights; Ron Wyand, sound; Kathy Macgowan, wigs; Kate Barrett, stage manager