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A CurtainUp Review
Beyond the Horizon
By Les Gutman
It's all in Daniel Blinkoff's remarkably expressive eyes.
Chain Lightning Theatre has staged an exceptionally fine production of Eugene O'Neill's Beyond The Horizon, but you'll miss very little of the story if you simply focus on the eyes of its central character, Robert Mayo. You'll also get a feeling for the sensitivity with which this production is directed and acted.
Beyond The Horizon was O'Neill's first full length production, and it won him his first Pulitzer. It is routinely (and now I would say wrongly) ignored. Before the Tyrones, before the Millers, before all those other surrogates for the O'Neill's, there were the Mayos. The New England seaside farm family of James Mayo (John Taylor) includes his wife, Kate (Dawn Jamieson), and two sons, Robert, a sickly poet with no interest in farming but a desire to go to sea to discover what's "beyond the horizon," and Andrew (Tony Ward), who inherited the Mayo knack for farming.
As Robert prepares to set sail with his uncle (Michael Shelle), love intervenes. He tells his brother's girlfriend, Ruth Atkins (Brandee Graff), that he loves her. When she professes love for him and not Andrew, Robert cancels his plans to go to sea. Instead, he will marry Ruth and become a farmer. Stunned and feeling dispossessed and uncomfortable, Andrew announces he will take the three year voyage with his uncle.
All the main characters have thus made choices that ill suit them; predictably, tragic consequences ensue. The lives of Robert and Ruth are on an inevitable slope downward: the marriage deteriorates, the farm falls into disrepair and Robert's health declines into his death. Andrew, compelled to live a life he neither knows nor understands, continues to make decisions that leave him, ultimately, both morally and financial on the verge of bankruptcy. Worse yet, he comes to feel responsible for all of the untoward circumstances that have fallen on his family. Despite their differences, the two brothers share an enduring fraternal bond of uncommon strength that underscores the depth of their misery.
David Travis' mounting of the play belies (or perhaps I should say overcomes) the structural criticisms often leveled at it. When originally staged in 1920 (at the Morosco), the play ran nearly four hours; this version (which appears to have cut little if any from the original language) clocks in at a brisk two-and-a-half hours. Aided by Meganne George's simple but extremely well-considered two-tiered set design, the fluid direction enhances the emotional thrust by minimizing the breaks in the action between scenes from which the more traditional original staging suffered. Parallel stagings in foreground and background are particularly effective in this regard. Whatever the technical shortcomings or seeming over-simplicity of this play when measured against O'Neill's later masterpieces, it nonetheless conveys an emotional wallop on par with the best.
The feel of this production is a very accessible blending of the traditional period realism and a more contemporary feel. Costumes (also designed by George) likewise seem to bridge this gap. (Indeed, it occurs to me I could describe it as early 20th Century farm clothing, as interpreted by The Gap.) Characterizations similarly achieve a sense of currency without sacrificing O'Neill's tone.
Extra-fine acting all around supports this accomplishment. Blinkoff's Robert, as noted, is a detailed masterful progression from idealistic young poet, to frustrated farmer-husband to defeated dreamer. Still, this is not a linear process. Robert is also a remarkably supportive and loving father and a faithful brother. As Andrew, Ward maintains a calm that avoids any semblance of sentimentality or melodrama. Ms. Graff delivers a crystal clear impression of Ruth, confounded but understood, manipulative but mostly just deflated and worn.
The older generation (the boys' parents, the uncle and Ruth's invalid mother (Carol Emshoff)) is far more two-dimensional here than in O'Neill's great plays -- it seems O'Neill was not yet ready to confront all of his demons -- but the performances are in all cases precise. The young daughter Mary (alternated between Teal Barns and Shana Sowdeswell and not specified at the reviewed performance) in this production was portrayed as an approximately 6 year old sweet but spoiled brat. The final two parts were ably performed by Scott McGowan, especially notably as the (here) stuttering farm hand Ben.
In addition to an excellent performance at a reasonable price ($15), this show provides an opportunity to see a great recent renovation of an old theater. Although the Alphabet City location is off-the-beaten track for many theater-goers, like the play itself, it shouldn't be ignored. (See the box below for more details on this theater.