at A Noise Within
he first half of Eugene O'Neill's gripping drama finds the master playwright in an uncharacteristically comic mode. There are laughs to be found in even the darkest O'Neill works, such as Long Day's Journey Into Night; but in Poet the scribe crafted with an extra measure of satiric amusement his glimpse at emotionally tortured souls. Following intermission, we are back into angst-filled dramatic terrain, and the segue feels seamless. Director Michael Murray's staging of this powerful play glistens in a handsome and consummately performed revival.
Posthumously produced in 1958, this is the only surviving complete play from O'Neill's unfinished 11-play cycle. (The partially completed More Stately Mansions was also posthumously mounted.) His familiar themes of severe family dysfunction and self-delusion as a survival mechanism for broken dreams are much in evidence in this tale, set in a Massachusetts tavern in 1828. Irish American Cornelius Melody (Geoff Elliott) is a dishonorably discharged British army major and a failed innkeeper who drowns his disappointments in booze and mistreats his wife, Nora (Deborah Strang), and daughter, Sara (Brigetta Kelly). He revels in drunken pretensions of being an aristocratic Byronic hero. When Sara sets her sights on seducing and marrying the son of a wealthy family and the boy's parents disrespect the socially undesirable Melody brood, the festering tensions in the Melody household lead to shattering confrontations.
Elliott's mesmerizing performance is graced by his eloquent delivery of O'Neill's soaring text and a profoundly tragicomic interpretation of the boisterous impossible-dreamer Cornelius. In a subtler but also superbly nuanced turn, Strang gives an intelligent and heart-rending portrayal of the devoutly religious wife trapped in a marital hellhole. Kelly is a powerhouse as the strong-willed and empathetic daughter. Other standouts in the brilliant 10-member ensemble include Jill Hill as the potential fiancé's uppity mother and Stephen Rockwell as Cornelius' devoted wartime comrade.
Dialect coach Andrea Morgan achieves impeccable results. Michael Smith's set, Soojin Lee's costumes, Ken Booth's lighting, and Ron Wyand's sound conjure a richly authentic ambiance in this enthralling production.
Presented by and at A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Repertory schedule. Sep. 30-Dec. 3. (818) 240-0910, ext. 1. www.anoisewithin.org.
Reviewed by Les Spindle