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Beyond the Horizon
By Elyse Sommer
Actually Beyond the Horizon was O'Neill's first "hit" and was considered a breakthrough from the light entertainment that prevailed on Broadway in 1920. But despite earning him the first of four Pulitzer Prizes, it's become one of his forgotten plays, and not produced as often as his own more mature less super-sudsy plays and the dramas about shattered dreams it inspired by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
Like the better known Tyrones of Moon for the Misbegotten and Long Day's Journey into the Night (also done at the Irish rep -- our review), the story of the Mayo brothers was also forged from the playwright's own life experiences — dropping out of college (Princeton) after a year, going to sea, suffering from tuberculosis. O'Neill's fraught memories of his parents made the entire Tyrone family more fully realized than the Mayos in which the focus is on the intense sibling relationship which survives even their both loving Ruth, the girl from the neighboring New England farm.
It's the choices made by Robert (Lucas Hall) and Andrew Mayo (Rod Brogan) and Ruth Atkins (Wrenn Schmidt) — each of which run counter to their natural inclination — that make this tragedy still resonate, especially in the Irish Rep's beautifully staged and well acted production. Clocking in at two ad a half hours this is a streamlined production when you consider that the original Broadway production ran close to four hours.
Hall and Brogan manage to make the extraordinarily strong bond between the two very different brothers clear and believable in the very first scene when we see the sickly, bookish Robert joined in his favorite hilltop hideaway by his more robust brother Andrew. While Andrew pokes fun at the poetry book his brother is reading, it's the good-natured joshing of a young man comfortable in his own more earthbound satisfactions as a natural-born farmer. He sees his brother's pending three-year seas going gig with their uncle Dick (John Thomas Waite) as a good for his health but can't comprehend his romantic vision of what he'll find at sea, and beyond the horizon right in front of them.
In his excitement about setting sail and really experiecing the sea and distant lands, Robert overcomes his shyness about declaring his feelings for Ruth. To his surprise, Ruth says that loves him and not Andrew. But her love means that he must give up his sea journey. He does so happily, convinced that this new state of affairs will mean that they'll find "the kingdom of heaven is within us." Naturally, it doesn't take a soothsayer to predict that Robert's ineptitude as a farmer and Ruth's inherent practicality will not bide well for a happy marriage.
It's easy to understand why Robert's protective mother Kate (Johanna Lester) is pleased that her youngest will stay home. It's also understandable why ames, the father (David Sitler) is upset when Andrew decides to take his brother's place as Uncle Dick's mate; but as the young people made their against-the-grain choices hastily, so the disappointed father too readily believes and resents Andrew when he insists he's not leaving because of Ruth but because he hates the farm and has always wanted to get away.
During the rest of the play we see the all too predictable consequences of all these doomed to end tragically choices play out. By the time Andrew returns from his three-year voyage, everyone and everything has changed for the worse. The marriage and the farm have deteriorated, making Robert more frail than ever and turning the vibrant Ruth into a disappointed, nag, as unlikeable as her invalid mother (Patricia Connolly). Despite his shift from poetic dreamer to frustrated farmer and husband, the residue of Robert's indestructible finer nature are evdent in his loving scenes with his little daughter Mary (Amée Laurence).
Though Andrew has done well as a seaman, his adventures haven't made him love the world beyond the horizon his brother so yearned to experience; However, while he now has bigger ambitions than running the family's farm, his plans for fulfilling these new dreams as a Buenos Aires businessman signal yet another tragedy in the making.
The story moves forward yet another five years. It's also another jump forward in the downwards spiral., Robert's health has, unsurprisingly, deteriorated completely, and Ruth has changed from nagging wife, to prematuredly aged, hoplessly defeated stoic. The changes in Ruth's looks and personality so drastically symbolize the descent from hope to despair, that it once inspired a production with three different actresses cast to play her in the different time frames. Fortunately, Ciarán O'Reilly has resisted such drastic directorial fillips. Instead he draws a performance from Wrenn Schmidt that convincingly shows Ruth changing from scene to scene.
Somehow the outward circumstances that befall this initially "average American family" and the minimal actual contact, the bond between the brothers endures right through the end. In fact, their powerful connection deepens the painful aftermath of their ill-conceived decisions.
Hugh Landweh're simple expressionistic set serves the production extremely well. Brian Nason's lighting so enhances the emotions and mood of each scene that it's almost a character in its own right. The lighting and Ryan Rumery's incidental music abet the fluidity between scenes.
As already mentioned, the older generation characters are not as fully dimensioned as the brothers and Ruth. Yet, they and the rest of the ensemble ably perform the small parts written for them.
For more about Eugene O'Neill and links to other of his plays reviewed at Curtainup see our O'Neill Backgrounder.
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