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Forgiveness is a favourite Eugene O’Neill theme, so I suppose that the greatness of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night should cause us to absolve everything that came before, particularly an uneven exercise in period Americana like A Touch of the Poet. It is, however, difficult to be kind to this story, set in 1828 at a tavern inn outside Boston, a drama finished in 1942 and first performed on Broadway in 1958.
While rather brief compared to the staples in the O’Neill canon, which make the uncut Hamlet seem a model of concision, Poet cannot conceal its utilitarian doggedness, its dialogue as dusty as the floors which the inn-owner’s wife, Nora, kneels down to scrub. All-consumingly devoted to her husband, Con Melody, Nora spars with her daughter Sara, who cannot believe that her mother would remain faithful to a spouse who fullness of ego contrasts almost exactly with his paucity of pocketbook.
Con, an Irishman mired in the mists of a vainglorious past, was once commended for bravery by the Duke of Wellington, before scandal dispatched him to the New World. Attired like a gentleman and, Con dreams of his daughter marrying a young poet who lies sick upstairs in the inn. That romance and the fate of Con’s horse constitute the drama’s driving events, though the real subject is, as with virtually all O’Neill, the ravages of drink: alcohol as both distraction from and distillation of reality.
The Roundabout Theatre has revived the play as a vehicle for Gabriel Byrne. The actor conveys Con’s broken-down hollowness – he admits that, for him, there is “no future but the past” – yet Byrne makes it difficult to believe that the character ever commanded a room with his bravura storytelling.
Bustling dutifully through Santo Loquasto’s set, which, oddly, is cavernous not tavernous, Dearbhla Molloy’s Nora imparts occasional eloquence to her long-suffering, and Kathryn Meisle, as the ladylike mother to the poet upstairs, lends the production, which was directed by Doug Hughes, considerable distinction. But the overall sense of lethargy is unbanishable.
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