Beyond the Horizon
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
February 25, 2012
In 1920, Eugene O’Neill cemented his reputation as an important rising American dramatist with Beyond the Horizon, the first of his four Pulitzer Prize winners. The achievement was remarkable for someone who had only started writing plays a few years before, doubly so considering that it was his first full-length work. This naturalistic “what if” story about two brothers who willingly take the wrong paths is less well-known than O’Neill’s canonical works, perhaps owing to its inherent quaintness and sudden, oversized emotions. It’s a pleasure, then, to report that Ciaran O’Reilly’s quietly compelling production for the Irish Repertory Theatre not only taps into the play's emotional core, but also its bleak source of laughs.
Set between 1907 and 1916, the play focuses on brothers Robert (Lucas Hall) and Andrew (Rod Brogan) Mayo. The pair pine equally for the affection of Ruth (Wrenn Schmidt), their neighbor, who initially chooses the poetic Robert over Andrew, the hard-working farmer. Robert, who is about to live his dream sailing the world on his uncle’s (John Thomas Waite) ship, chooses to stay with Ruth. In effect, he and Andrew switch lives; Rob takes over on the farm, digging it deeper and deeper into desolation, while Andy, who couldn’t bear to watch his brother marry the woman he loves, takes the position on Captain Dick’s boat and becomes a world-traveling seaman. The results, as expected, are tragic.
Though the casting of the three principals proves to be uneven at times, the actors still provide an unbearably moving journey. Hall is an eminently likeable Rob, and believably charts the character’s arc from youthful dreamer to sickly nothing. Brogan is a bit too sensitive to start out, though uses that sensitivity to his advantage as Andy finds happiness (and disillusionment, as well, in Argentina.) Schmidt is quite lovely until the play’s last scene, when she adopts a permanent scowl and flat, monotonous delivery to convey Ruth’s brokenness. Waite and Patricia Conolly, as Ruth’s wheelchair-bound mother, provide a surprising amount of comic relief, while the remaining cast members Johanna Leister and David Sitler as the Mayo parents, Jonathan Judge-Russo as an angry farmhand, and young Aimee Laurence as Rob and Ruth’s toddler daughter, are quite affecting.
Design-wise, O’Reilly’s perfectly-paced staging (which clocks in at just under three hours) sacrifices naturalism for the abstract in ways that shouldn’t work as well as they do. Hugh Landwehr’s set consists of two multicolored murals adorning each wall with a wood-plank floor. With Brian Nason’s chilling lighting, they vaguely resemble a ship heading into the night, or a desolate farm at dusk, sacrificing what O’Neill requests in his stage directions, but working nonetheless, despite tedious scene changes. Only Linda Fisher and Jessica Barrios’s costumes never looked quite right, too clean and not dingy enough.
Credit to the Irish Rep for consistently giving us first-class O’Neill productions. Let’s hope they continue breathing new life into his rarely seen plays, whether they’re worthy of it or not.