No matter how hard playwright Eugene O'Neill tried to distance himself from his anguished past, the personal demons of his family life continued to hound the great writer until his death in 1953. He passed on his obsession to his widow, Carlotta, instructing her to refrain from producing his most personal play, Long Day's Journey Into Night, until at least 25 years after his death. However, friends and relatives persuaded her to release the rights to his masterpiece only three years after her husband died, and the posthumous performance of his "family play" forged his reputation as America's first great playwright.
But O'Neill's most ambitious undertaking actually took place in the 1930s, when he sought in vain to create a cycle of plays (at one point as many as eleven were envisioned) that would encapsulate the American character in one family's generational odyssey. The grand title was to be A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed, but after many years of work, O'Neill tore up most of what he had composed and completed just one play, A Touch of the Poet, now at the Denver Center Theatre Company in a production on loan from Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage.
O'Neill again exhumes the emotional wounds of his past in this vaguely personal drama set in 1828 Boston. Cornelius "Con" Melody (Daniel J. Travanti, best known for his many years as Captain Frank Furillo on TV's Hill Street Blues) is an Irish-American tavern owner who aspires to a higher social position than his vocation permits. Like many of O'Neill's characters, Con drinks, dreams and dredges up memories in order to help him cope with reality. To assuage his melancholy, his wife, Nora (Tana Hicken), and daughter, Sara (Fiona Gallagher), abide his drunken commemoration of a battle he fought while a major in the Seventh Dragoons under the Duke of Wellington. They even encourage him to wear his old uniform, preserved specially for the annual rite.
But there is more on Con's mind this year than a good old-fashioned drinking binge. His daughter has taken to a young man, Simon Harford, the son of a respectable Boston family, and it appears that he and Sara will marry. In keeping with tradition, Con insists that he will sit down with the young man's father in order to hammer out a legal accord that will effectively pawn off Sara to the Harford family. Sara, being the free-spirited, ambitious and strong-willed character that she is, wants none of that. Instead, she seeks to secure her union to Simon in an equally old-fashioned manner: She seduces him in the family inn's upper room.
Director Michael Kahn makes the most of the sparse humor sprinkled through O'Neill's script, mining the play for as many laughs as he can find. Combined with the efforts of a seasoned cast, Kahn's light treatment makes this 165-minute play fast-paced and engaging. That's not to say, however, that it's at all moving. Apart from the show's final twenty minutes, we never witness the sort of emotional electricity that is characteristic of O'Neill's writing.
Many of the show's problems lie with Travanti and Gallagher, whose pivotal portrayals are simply not believable. Travanti, for instance, affects a phony voice that's particularly distracting during his character's many moments of high emotion. Furthermore, it's difficult to believe that Con couldn't have done a better job of pulling off the false identity he occasionally assumes--that of a worldly, sophisticated gentleman. Save for Travanti's well-played final scene, there's not much genuine theatricality in his perplexing portrayal, which was admittedly hampered on opening night by his valiant efforts to combat the effects of a severe cold.
As Sara, Gallagher is headstrong enough but never manifests the underlying resentments that fuel the character's ambition. Early in the play, for instance, Sara talks about how Con blew whatever chance he had to make it in America and laments that she'll never have the opportunities afforded to her father. She should have an anger that is palpable. But Gallagher's rendering more closely resembles the travails of a teenager experiencing a bad hair day than it does the crisis of a vibrant young woman doomed to a life she doesn't want.
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By contrast, Hicken delivers a performance that is touching and powerful as the hopelessly devoted Nora. Embracing all that O'Neill has given to the character, she wins our hearts from the first moment she appears on stage. And Robin Mosely nearly steals the show in an all-too-brief appearance as Simon Harford's mother. Gracefully tossing her head and delicately coloring each line, Mosely performs a verbal surgery that is masterful in its execution.
This faithful and entertaining revival is part of an ongoing series of artistic exchanges between the DCTC and leading resident theaters throughout the country (the DCTC's It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues traveled east last year). Taken in that spirit, it's refreshing to watch the work of one of the nation's more respected acting companies.
Somewhere, though, you can almost hear yourself saying, "Come on, Frankie."
A Touch of the Poet, through January 10 at the Space Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.