A Touch of the Poet
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 4, 2008
I've said this before, but it's still true: one of the great but increasingly hard-to-come-by joys of being a theatre reviewer is making the acquaintance of a fine classic play that I had somehow heretofore missed. Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet turns out to be just such a play, and the revival by Friendly Fire just such a joyful encounter. Especially if this is a piece of the American canon that you have not yet caught up with, I highly recommend that you catch it now at the 14th Street Theater.
A Touch of the Poet is one of the very last plays written by O'Neill, and it has a valedictory feel, bringing together some of the playwright's thematic obsessions into a beautiful and neat package. It tells the story of Con Melody, an Irishman who had his moment of glory in His Majesty's Army under the future Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Talavera. It is now 20 years later (the play is set very specifically on July 27, 1828). Con emigrated soon after Talavera to the United States, with his wife, Nora, and their daughter, Sara. They live in a village near Boston, where they operate a ragtag tavern. Con is a drinker, and in his cups he revels in his position as military hero and fallen member of the aristocracy (for he says he was brought up in a castle). He has disdain for the Irish laborers who are his steady customers, and also for his wife, who he never lets forget was beneath his station when she fell in love with him and became pregnant with his child.
For her part, Nora is a truth-teller and a pragmatist; but Sara is in her way as big a faker as her father, and she's concocted a big dream, one that propels the plot of A Touch of the Poet. A young man named Simon Harford, scion of a rich Yankee family, has come under her wing, so to speak: after having escaped from his family to a cottage in the woods, he took ill, and Sara brought him to Melody's Tavern to help him recover. Now she means to wed him: she says he's in love with her, and that she is in love with him—enough in love to marry him, though not so much that she'll lose sight of her objective.
But a kind of destiny is about to play havoc with the dreams of Con and Sara: a long day and night (though not exactly the grueling long day's journey into night that O'Neill had already crafted for another family of his imagining) will conspire to make Con face his illusions and all three Melodys confront the pride that fuels their own unique pipe dreams. On the cover of the show's program, a quote by O'Neill appears: "It's the humiliation of a loving kiss that destroys evil." There, stabbing at us with sharp precision, is the theme of A Touch of the Poet.
Alex Lippard's production is simple and honest, trusting the playwright's language and his deep understanding of character to carry the play forward. Michael V. Moore's set is a spare and appropriate rendition of the dining room of Melody's Tavern. Amanda Bujak's costumes are evocative of the period and each characters' class; lighting by Miriam Nilofa Crowe and sound by William J. Pickens further define the world of the play.
Taking the lead in this revival is Daniel J. Travanti, the Emmy-winning star of Hill Street Blues a couple of decades back. His performance as Con Melody is triumphant, building in potency as the play progresses to a memorable and heart-rending climax as Con comes face to face with his demons in the final act of the drama. The anchor of the play is Ellen Crawford as Nora, delivering a fine, fierce portrayal of a proud, strong woman of remarkable fortitude. Tessa Klein is less sure-footed as Sara; she has some excellent moments where she shows us that she is Con's daughter, but is less convincing in her battles with her father (this may change as her performance grows during the run).
Among the supporting players, Ian Stuart makes a very strong impression as Nicholas Gadsby, the man whose arrival at the tavern sets Con off on his latest (final?) quixotic struggle. Timothy Smallwood as Mickey, the bartender, and Richard B. Watson as Jamie Cregan, a friend of Con's from his military days, also deliver particularly noteworthy performances.
The play, though, is king here: O'Neill distills a lifetime of wisdom and pain as he pushes Con and Sara to confront the limits of the illusory personas they've constructed for themselves. Truth collides with love to jolt these two dreamers; one of the interesting aspects of Poet is that by the end we're not at all sure whether any of what Con and Sara made themselves believe is real.
Kudos to Friendly Fire for bringing this fine work by one of our greatest American playwrights back to the stage at a very audience-friendly price; and to Lippard and Travanti and his castmates for delivering it with such exquisite care.