Even the genius Eugene O’Neill, the only American playwright to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, had a learning curve. And Director Kathleen Akerley, who has the courage to think outside the box and take humongous risks, tackles his great but flawed, three-act play.
For this story about a love-triangle between two brothers who switch roles because of their desire for the same woman, Akerley, for the most part, handles her acting ensemble with savvy staging. Scenic designer Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s Expressionistic set of Japanese-style, silkscreen-panels of a sketchy river and mountains, clouds, and blue sky is breath-taking. Whistling wind, faint field bird and seagull calls throughout the piece (sound designer Neil McFadden) keep us yearning for what’s beyond the horizon. The actors, secure in their memorization, deliver a clear-intentioned reading of a convoluted, prolix text. There’s a lot to like, tempered by some distractions, in The American Century Theatre’s uneven but worthy production.
That said, let’s put this neglected but worthy play in context. First produced on Broadway in 1920, Beyond the Horizon was hailed by some critics as “cutting edge,” and won O’Neill his first of four Pulitzer Prizes. Instead of the trite melodramas and silly farces on stage at the time, O’Neill drew heavily upon his own life, probed and found poetry in the everyday, and pioneered autobiographical writing for the American stage. His characters are a mix of good and evil; not stereotypical heroes and villains. Other playwrights followed suit, like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee, with focus on the American Dream that promises freedom but fails to guarantee it.
Some of Akerley’s innovations enhance the talky text and vitalize what could be static scenes. O’Neill’s long exposition in Act I, for example, is necessary backstory. By using expansive choreographed movements, Akerley captures the brothers’ symbiotic, intense but friendly rivalry. The actors almost dance the first scene. Andrew, the materialistic “son of the soil,” (Felipe Cabezas), brims with energy, He ended his book-learning after high school to farm. In contrast, the more spiritual egghead, Robert (Joshua Drew), book-in-hand, grew up a sickly, nerdy kid who never played sports and fell behind dreaming of the sea; but eventually got through one year in college. (He’s a projection of O’Neill who dropped out of Princeton after a year.)
Under Akerley’s guiding hand, the characters are larger than life, even Biblical, as suggested by Artistic Director Jack Marshall’s in his Audience Guide. Andrew or Andy is played with all stops out by Cabezas, so that, amazingly, we like him. Andy, the robust, healthy farm kid, dressed in overalls and checkered shirt, who straddles the white post-fence, speaks of how he relishes farm work. He’s closer to his patriarch dad, James Mayo (Chuck Young), who embodies the Irish immigrant’s passion for deep roots and land.
Robert, played with a gentler glow by Drew, wanders the stage as he speaks candidly to his brother, as if to himself, about how he wants to “keep on moving so I won’t take root in any one place,” like the Irish Celtic bard, the wandering Angus (whom W.B. Yeats immortalized). As the brothers expose their true selves, the actors face off; and then switch positions, using the full range of the thrust stage. From this free-wheeling posturing, we understand that the boys are jockeying for position in the family and a place in the sun.
Akerley continues using the thrust stage to the max by positioning her actors symbolically in the Act I parlor scene. Andy is upstage, like an outsider on the rim of events, when Robert announces he is not shipping out and will marry the farm girl-next-door, Ruth (Ashley DeMain in this act). But Akerley adds a haunting detail that heightens a sense of predestined doom. Captain Dick Scott (Joe Cronin), Robert and his mother, Kate Mayo (a soulful Jane E. Petkofsky) , stand to the side, as if in a Greek chorus, and chant “Judgment,” “Home” and “Spirit” as a life-changing, frenzied argument occurs center stage. Andy, hurt by Ruth’s rejection, sacrifices his love of the land to take Robert’s place on the sea voyage. Disappointed James Mayo (Chuck Young), who is aware a tragic mistake has been made, throws Andy out of the house. Chuck Young as James projects a terrifying moment by playing his violent outburst straight ahead, off the platform at audience level. The functional family has grown dysfunctional.
If only the intense tempo could hold, but it doesn’t. Part of the slow-down is that Akerley has cast three different actresses to play Ruth. And up to a point, it works. Ruth is deteriorating because the brothers have not followed their instinctive, natural talents. Ashley DeMain in Act I is a bouncy, youthful Ruth. In Act II, Eli Sibley conveys a Ruth who is an overworked nag, disappointed with Robert’s farm management, sweating from a hot kitchen. And in Act III, Amy Quiggins is the aging, stoical Ruth, embittered by farm life, and by Robert, who is dying of consumption. But fortunately, here comes one of the great paradoxes of O’Neill: Though the regional dialect is outdated, as when James says, “Jined together they’d make a jim-dandy of a place,…” and the casting is confusing, (the photos in the lobby help with identity), yet the audience sat mesmerized with wonder.
Every director since 1920 has grappled with O’Neill’s impossible problem. Little Mary, Ruth’s and Robert’s two-year-old child, speaks like an eight-year-old – at one point she asks where the sea stops. Akerley resolves the problem by casting a puppet (by puppeteers Eric Brooks and Don Becker), instead of a child actor. After all, O’Neill borrowed another prop from the Expressionists by using masks to show spiritual conflict in The Great God Brown.
But in all fairness, sometimes Akerley’s experimentation goes too far. Why do Ruth and Robert make those repetitive throat-cutting and robotic gestures near the end of Act II? Is it that the characters are so desperately trapped, they’re suicidal? The gesturing is more distracting than clear. We don’t need it.
There are soaring moments, however. Felipe Cabezas, as Andrew Mayo, the brother who loves his brother but who also yearns for greater opportunity, delivers an electrifying performance. He is in communion with Joshua Drew as Robert, who also shines as he projects a calm radiance throughout by maintaining the flow of O’Neill’s language at its lyrical best from Act I. He reveals what drives him: “…..the beauty of the far off and unknown, the mystery and spell of the East, …. the need of the freedom of great wide spaces, the joy of wandering on and on—in quest of the secret which is hidden just over there, beyond the horizon?” But O’Neill’s language is spotty and doesn’t carry through to the transcendental ending, even though the Irish Catholic theme of sacrifice does.
There’s a huge problem with length in Acts II and III. As the marriage between Rob and Ruth disintegrates, their child Mary dies, and both farms fail. Andy returns from the sea after losing most of his speculations in Buenos Aires to find Rob dying of consumption.
Thankfully, Akerley keeps striving for physicality which helps the young actors. One stand-out moment is darkly comic and reflects O’Neill’s idea of sacrifice. Stretched out in a crucifix position on the ground, Robert reveals his dream of borrowing money from Andy for a fresh start. Meanwhile Ruth stands in harsh light (lighting by Marianne Meadows) like a statue of Justice on the platform. Poets aren’t just frustrated; they’re destroyed. There’s no resurrection. No redemption but perhaps a wisp of hope. During his death throes, Robert asks Andy to marry Ruth. But it’s tragically too late. Ruth is worn out. As dawn breaks, Robert dies in a transcendental moment of full sunlight. “I can hear the old voices calling me to come—and this time I’m going—I’m free! It isn’t the end. It’s a free beginning—the start of my voyage!” Death comes as a relief.
This TACT production isn’t for everyone. But thankfully, this theatrical company revives imperfect gems. Based on what I saw on opening night, a labor of love became labored, partly because of pacing and length. This production has yet to come to life as an integrated entity. But thanks to this dedicated cast, it will. It’s just beyond the horizon.
Beyond the Horizon
By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Kathleen Akerley
Produced by The American Century Theater
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running time: 2hrs, 45 minutes with 2 intermissions