Take two underperformed plays by great writers and present both in repertory with one company. Laurie Sansom’s twin productions of Eugene O’Neill’s rarely seen “Beyond the Horizon” and Tennessee Williams’ barely known “Spring Storm” could have been mere archaeology, but this directorial balancing act, fleshed out by fine performances, makes for one seriously engrossing theatrical event.
The pairing is nothing short of inspired, not least because their kinship is far from accidental. “Spring Storm” (1937) sprang from Williams’ response to having read “Beyond the Horizon,” which was not only O’Neill’s first full-length play but his first Pulitzer Prize winner. Yet, since Williams’ play was unearthed only in 1996, no one has previously considered yoking the two together.
Each play is like a primer to the dramatists’ later work. “Beyond the Horizon” is a typically elemental, slow-paced yearning tragedy of sibling rivalry, family responsibilities and frustrated poetic spirit. “Spring Storm” deals with sexual identities in conflict, its flirtatious heroine torn between a swarthy lover and the effete but suitable young man preferred by an overpowering Southern mother.
Producing them in tandem pays huge thematic dividends — the central tragic hero in each play is hostage to a dream of leaving, and in both plays the central woman switches allegiance between two men. The highly different handling of those similarities is ideally underlined by Sansom’s use of a single company, the key paralleled roles played by the same actors.
“Beyond the Horizon” is the more tonally secure play. An early twist sees the poetic brother Robert (Michael Malarkey) throwing aside his longed-for journey beyond his Connecticut farm because he suddenly realizes he loves his brother Andy’s girl Ruth (Liz White). Stung by jealousy into rash action, Andy quits the farm.
From there on in, O’Neill steadily tightens the focus on tragic inevitability as the consequences of the decision are played out.
As Andy, Michael Thompson delivers an unshowy yet star-making performance. He turns Andy’s bumptious naivety into stoicism, never once playing for sympathy as disappointment sours his life. It’s a wholly unsentimental, mesmerizing performance.
He’s matched by Liz White who appears to grow ever more erect and etiolated as, over years of struggle and denial, her hopes and her husband’s health crumble. It’s all the more fascinating, therefore, to then see White transformed in “Spring Storm” into skittish, wilful Heavenly, flouncing, flirting and forever misreading her own feelings.
She’s already given herself to local hunk Dick Miles (Thompson) — a for-runner of Stanley Kowalski – who wants her to run away with him. But she wavers, caught by the respectability offered by wealthy Arthur (Malarkey). But Arthur is uncertain, haunted by Heavenly’s schoolgirl taunting of his effeminacy, a sort of pre-echo of Mitch from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Malarkey keeps Arthur’s fears just below the surface, thereby maintaining tension throughout as his character struggles between desire and self-hatred. That’s particularly important as at this early stage of Williams’ career — it’s seven years before his breakthrough with “The Glass Menagerie” — the dramatist isn’t yet able to structure all his diverse characters and their dangerous desires into a satisfying dramatic whole.
The upside of that is the rich variety of moods. Arthur’s drunken flirtation with repressed librarian Hertha (neat and quietly desperate Anna Tolputt) ends in defiant tragedy highlighted by the elements expressed in the play’s title. More surprisingly, there are sustained passages of comedy, generated most notably by Heavenly’s calculating, social-climbing mother, Esmerelda, thanks to a virtuoso performance by Jacqueline King whose breathless timing is beyond compare.
Nothing in either playwright’s output could ever be accused of being underwritten, yet their writing is too often overplayed. Not here. In all but the self-conscious lighting, restraint is the hallmark of Sansom’s productions. Each play is clearly something of a fledgling work. But juvenilia they are not. Seeing them together in this fascinating production strengthens them both.