Eugene O’Neill, creator of several of the most famous sots in theater history — from Jamie in “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” to the purgatorial crew of “The Iceman Cometh” — outdid himself with Cornelius Melody, who may be the single most hateful character he penned. The challenge of this role for an actor is to not flinch from Cornelius’ awful pride and cruelty, to discover the damaged humanity beneath the layers of selfishness. Geoff Elliott succeeds brilliantly at this in “A Touch of the Poet” at A Noise Within, a first-rate production that shines under Michael Murray’s thoughtful direction.
Cornelius, who once had fame and status in England, now runs a tavern in America, poorly. He spends his days preening over his appearance, abusing his adoring wife, Nora (Deborah Strang), and attempting to disguise the realities of his life by drinking himself into angry oblivion. His daughter Sara (Brigetta Kelly), however, has plans of her own — a scheme to marry their rich young guest — and intends to escape her father’s prison of soured nostalgia at any cost.
What’s remarkable about Elliott’s full-blown perf is his commitment to the difficult role. Although the actor finds plenty of humor in Cornelius’ vanity and self-deception, there’s nothing funny about the man’s near-constant deprecation of his wife, or his mounting rage against Sara. A scene in which Cornelius goes out of his way to insult his daughter is awesome in its petty ugliness.
Strang is thoroughly convincing as the unlucky Nora, who loves Cornelius even as he berates her. They’re co-dependent: She needs him to love, and he needs her to take care of him as he blames her for all his problems. Strang brings a nicely maternal vibe to the character, a selfless woman who isn’t really unhappy although she has cause to be.
Kelly, in her company debut, is superb. Her perf as Sara pulses with dramatic life, from volleys of withering sarcasm fired at Cornelius to quiet moments of reflection with Nora. She is able to go toe-to-toe with Elliott in their angry confrontations, which is no small feat. She brings the urgency and ups the stakes of the play, and is consistently impressive.
Michael Smith’s dining room set has a homey, lived-in feel, the chairs and tables seemingly burnished with wear, and it serves the play well.