Beyond the Horizon, Eugene O’Neill’s first full length play, was produced on Broadway in 1920 garnering one of four Pulitzer Prizes the playwright would receive over the course of his career. Mining personal history, the story’s heroes are a sensitive, sickly man who longs to experience the world by means of the sea he loves-O’Neill spent several years working on ships after being suspended from Princeton and suffered from tuberculosis—and his practical, earth-bound brother “as much a product of the soil as an ear of corn.” Their deep bond, perhaps derived from one O’Neill had with his older sibling Jamie who died of alcoholism at 45, is backbone to the piece. It overrides even the love both characters have for the same woman, an emotion whose communication or lack of it, controls their fates like a cosmic puppeteer.
Robert Mayo (Lucas Hall) is the dreamer, Andrew Mayo (Rod Brogan) the farmer, Ruth Atkins (Wrenn Schmidt) the girl in question. A last minute reversal, wrenching jealousy, and willful pride sends the “wrong” brother away from his parents Kate (Johanna Leister) and James (David Sitler) as well as overturning every lifelong plan he fostered. The almost-too-jolly-for-this-play Captain Dick Scott (John Thomas Waite) will make a man of the boy. Consequences rivaling the trials of Job ensue. Unsuppressed temper and crippling depression, also from the author’s own life, is broadly depicted. Horizon firmly established O’Neill’s oeuvre as the emotional and moral conflicts of family dynamics (most often in the shadow of Catholicism).
The first act is long-winded, predictable, stilted, and filled with clichés. Direction that veers from immobility to exaggeration doesn’t help. The second, better written, directed and acted reveals more of why the piece was considered groundbreaking. Unexpected reactions ricochet in accordance with realistically confused feelings. Momentum is finally in force. Absence of a neatly tied-up ending= redemption must’ve been a shock at the time.
The esteemed Irish Repertory Company, a valuable member of New York’s theatrical community, has had considerably more success with revivals of other early pieces. It’s difficult to get past the dated nature of pace, construction and language here to a story whose parameters may be contrived but whose ultimate quandaries remain universal.
A game ensemble is headed by Lucas Hall (Robert) who anticipates lines but exhibits naturalistic acting in the late-to-dinner scene and with Rob’s daughter, Rod Brogan (Andrew) who comes to furious, credible life in the second act, and Wrenn Schmidt (Ruth) whose downtrodden wife has as many moments of fine spark as she does of disappearing. Patricia Conolly’s Mrs. Atkins (Ruth’s wheelchair bound harridan mother) deserves call out for being skin-crawlingly good without going over the top. The cast also includes Jonathan Judge-Russo as Ben, a farmhand.
A striking, minimalist, painterly set by Hugh Landwehr is all the more effective for lighting design by Brian Nason. Costume design by Linda Fisher and Jessica Barrios is excellent in every detail.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Beyond the Horizon by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Ciaran O’Reilly
The Irish Repertory Theater
132 West 22nd Street
Through April 8, 2012