Self-deception proves a cruelly corrosive state of mind in Gabriel Byrne’s haunting interpretation of Cornelius Melody in “A Touch of the Poet.” By the time Eugene O’Neill’s slow-burning drama about the troubled union of the old world with the new has played out, the dreams of this deluded romantic have dissolved, reducing the prideful man to a ghoulish clown. While it feels initially as stodgy as the rhetoric-spouting, alcoholic windbag driving the action, this distinguished production builds into a commandingly theatrical experience as director Doug Hughes and his cast patiently uncover the play’s majestic mournfulness.
Premiered on Broadway in a 1958 staging directed by Harold Clurman and starring Eric Portman, Kim Stanley and Helen Hayes, the play is one of only two surviving works (the other is “More Stately Mansions”) from O’Neill’s 11-play cycle “A Tale of Possessors Self-Possessed.” It was intended to come at the middle of the saga about the hollowness and corruption behind the American dream as reflected in the history of the New England Harford family.
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Being a fragment of a larger tale (the rest was torched at O’Neill’s insistence), the play must accommodate laborious stretches of expository dialogue that locates the action at the point of conflicted intersection between the patrician Harfords and Melody’s Irish peasant family. But the drama’s brooding psychological complexity and rancorous family friction, and its sly injections of vinegary humor into dark moments, make it a worthy entry in the great American playwright’s canon.
Aptly known as Con, Cornelius is a magnificent fool, a grand poster boy for bipolar dysfunction. His mood swings are dizzying — preening like a peacock one minute, wallowing in maudlin self-pity the next, his gallantry and charm giving way without warning to vicious insults. In Byrne’s capable hands, these ricocheting extremes are as compelling for the audience as they are unnerving for the bruised figures around him.
Despite his reduced status as a cash-strapped innkeeper near Boston in 1828, Con tirelessly keeps alive his past glory as an officer in the Duke of Wellington’s army, and his embroidered sense of himself as a gentleman. He’s forced to commingle with Irish riffraff who think him a pompous snob, and is spurned by the Yankee gentry as a drunken mick not of their class. Con’s vanity has enslaved his wife, Nora (Dearbhla Molloy), and made his daughter, Sara (Emily Bergl), bitterly resentful.
The three family members circle each other with a mix of wariness and weary affection on Santo Loquasto’s imposing set — a central well of aged wood, overhung by a dark ceiling and backed by a stark wall lit by Christopher Akerlind with a ghostly glow that hints at the inescapable weight of the past.
Sent to school to acquire the refinements more fitting to a “gentlemen’s daughter,” Sara dropped out early and returned to the tavern to share the burden of drudgery with her rheumatic, prematurely aged mother.
It’s Sara’s bid to flee the oppressive environment into an advantageous marriage that sparks the play’s conflicts. Her intended fiance is the unseen Simon Harford, a wannabe Thoreau confined to a bed upstairs after contracting fever while living in a wilderness cabin.
Prone to self-hypnosis while reciting Byron to a prominently positioned mirror, Con admires Simon for his romantic “touch of the poet.” But his approval is compromised first by a clumsy brush with Simon’s eccentric mother (Kathryn Meisle), whom he attempts to seduce, unaware of her identity. Later, he denies his permission as a means of striking back at Sara for her openly scornful treatment of him: “All I can see in you is a common, greedy, scheming, cunning peasant girl, whose only thought is money and who has shamelessly thrown herself at a young man’s head because his family happens to possess a little wealth and position.”
Bergl takes time to simmer into the prickly role of Sara, who lays on a thick Irish brogue to rile her father, making no secret of her disgust at his obstinate refusal to face reality. But she becomes more persuasive, driven by both ambition and love, defiantly refusing to back down to her father or the intimidations of Harford’s lawyers, whose insulting attempts to buy the Melodys off and prevent the marriage provoke Con to violence.
Molloy creates a wrenching portrait of a woman who has put aside her religious faith to live a life of shame, guilt and selfless toil, choosing to remain in denial about her husband’s crippling weaknesses and believe only in her unyielding devotion to him. “There’s no slavery in it when you love,” Nora says.
The loathing of his roots that erupts in Con’s outbursts toward his wife and daughter has more power to scald and shock than any physical violence. “For God’s sake, why don’t you wash your hair?” he snarls at Nora after first embracing her. “It turns my stomach with its stink of onions and stew!” Or to Sara: “Keep your thick wrists and ugly, peasant paws off the table in my presence, if you please!” Despite being treated by the overpowering central character with a disdain reserved for servants, Molloy and Bergl both etch impressions of dignified resilience.
Byron Jennings has amusing moments as Con’s former army associate, not blind to the major’s sham but ready all the same to lather on whatever blarney is required to stroke his ego and keep the whiskey flowing.
Perhaps inevitably, all other presences onstage seem pale next to Cornelius. Byrne cuts an arresting figure when he dons full army regalia to celebrate a battle anniversary, but his steely good looks provide only the thinnest mask for his ravaged soul when Con’s illusions are shattered. “I am but a ghost haunting a ruin,” he says with gloomy self-importance early on. Summoning a tragic grandeur that is unmistakably O’Neill, that pronouncement proves eerily unsettling when Con remains alive — a denuded, delirious shell of a man once fleshed out by fabrications.