A melancholy O’Neill in ‘Beyond the Horizon’

Noted American playwright Eugene O'Neill had a melancholy view of life's possibilities, which didn't prevent him from winning several Pulitzer Prizes for his dramas, including one for his first full-length play, the 1920 tragedy, "Beyond the Horizon."

The turgid domestic drama, about life-altering, mistaken choices that slowly crush a family's dreams, is currently in a smart, touching, if expectedly depressing off-Broadway revival at The Irish Repertory Theatre.

In rural 1907 eastern Massachusetts, two close brothers in their early 20s are both in love with Ruth, the farm girl next door. Younger Mayo brother Robert, a bookish dreamer following a sickly childhood, is about to embark on his life's ambition, heading on a round-the-world sea voyage for three years with his uncle. Brother Andrew has no curiosity about the greater world, and is looking forward to helping their father run the farm, while secretly hoping to marry Ruth.

But when Robert reveals his feelings to Ruth, the brothers rashly switch roles in one explosive evening that fractures the family. In true O'Neill fashion, one hasty decision leads to others that will eventually ruin nearly everyone's lives. Under Ciaran O'Reilly's thoughtful direction, the play covers nine increasingly tragic years fairly quickly, presenting a heartrending picture of people trapped in a downward-spiraling, hard life where even small hopes are dashed.

The play incorporates O'Neill's own love of the sea and his personal experience with tuberculosis, as well as his romantic, idealistic nature, all embodied by Lucas Hall. Affectingly conveying Robert's decency, naive sincerity and longing for the promise and mystery that lie "beyond the horizon," Hall remains convincing even when the plot eventually requires him to collapse melodramatically and literally crawl to the scene of the denouement.

Rod Brogan as Andy is stoic at first, while nicely showing the true love and loyalty Andy feels for his younger brother even when his life is turned upside down. Andy makes the best of his life at sea, but ironically, his ambitions and long absences unintentionally further harm the family. Brogan is strong in the second act, as a now-successful Andy fails to realize the true sad state of his brother's life until it's too late.

Wrenn Schmidt as Ruth is lively and animated at first, but all signs of life gradually disappear from her. Ground down by five years of poverty despite hard work, an increasingly snappish Ruth has come to despise her husband, as Robert isn't successful at managing the farm. Ruth even resents Robert's loving approach to their willful toddler daughter, Mary (Aimee Laurence, quite charming in her off-Broadway debut) and Robert tiredly points out that she's become "mean and small."

Ruth deteriorates from sullen to coldly emotionless, and Schmidt is especially shut down in the final scenes, tersely speaking in a hard, flat voice. O'Neill has made Ruth the villain, and with Schmidt so withdrawn, it's difficult to relate to her or care about her suffering.

O'Reilly and the cast do try to leaven O'Neill's doleful dialogue with some humorous interpretations. Patricia Conolly is adept at comically representing Ruth's wheelchair-bound, querulous, harping mother, and Johanna Leister provides subtle wit as the boys' loving mother. Their uncle Dick, a ship's captain, is deployed for comedy by a ruddy-faced, hearty John Thomas Waite. David Sitler is sternly unyielding in his pivotal appearance as James Mayo, the boys' father.

The simple, elevated set, backed by two walls that colorfully project changing skies and moods, nicely evokes a "road not taken" and a wider world that is uncaring toward the unhappy Mayo household.

Robert wistfully says, "If I'd had the courage to live my dream..." as his disappointing life draws to a close. This well-done production of "Beyond the Horizon" provides a fascinating look at O'Neill's early presentation of themes that recur throughout his award-winning body of work.

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