Beyond the Horizon
To leave home or to stay: two young brothers confront this difficult, if conventional, choice in Eugene O’Neill’s "Beyond the Horizon," the rightfully celebrated dramatist’s first full-length work.
Set on a Massachusetts farm in the early twentieth century, the play opens with seemingly irrevocable declarations from each brother about his heartfelt intentions: Andrew Mayo (Rod Brogan), who cherishes physical labor and has no taste for adventure, will remain on the family’s Massachusetts farm, while Robert Mayo (Lucas Hall), a ravenous bookworm, has decided to set sail with his uncle, Captain Dick Scott (John Thomas Waite), for all the unseen exotic locales that have inflamed his boundless imagination.
No matter what amount of happiness or misery would have awaited the pragmatist and the dreamer at the end of their respective journeys, one assumes both brothers could at least have taken solace in knowing that they never went against fate.
But unfortunately for himself and the rest of his family, Robert does derail destiny, uttering the three little words most likely to upend a life for better or for worse: "I love you." On the eve of voyaging off with his uncle, Robert confesses his long-repressed feelings to Ruth Atkins (Wrenn Schmidt), the attractive daughter of a neighboring widow (Patricia Conolly), never expecting her to return his affections.
It always had been assumed that Ruth would marry the capable, hardworking Andrew, allowing the brothers’ father James (David Sitler) to combine the Atkins and Mayo farms into a more profitable venture. Ruth’s desire for Robert, however, changes everything.
The lovelorn Andrew and the love-struck Robert essentially switch lives, with Andrew taking a job on his uncle’s ship and Robert settling down to married life on the farm. Although Andrew adapts to the sea far better than Robert does to the land, the end result for both brothers is the same: tragedy.
In a brutally emotional scene in which Sitler is the clear stand-out, James disowns Andrew for abandoning the family. James was willing to let the poetic Robert leave to explore the vast unknown, but not the industrious son who has been groomed to run and expand the farm. His wife Kate (Johanna Leister) can only look on in horror as her family comes apart.
Despite earning O’Neill the Pulitzer Prize in 1920, "Beyond the Horizon" is not one of his great efforts. The dialogue is occasionally clunky and often repetitive, the exposition-laden first scene drags, and the strong-willed Andrew’s passivity in the face of his brother’s betrayal never really makes much sense. Most troubling, O’Neill’s treatment of Ruth verges on misogyny.
As the catalyst of the brothers’ downfall, O’Neill depicts Ruth as little more than a human anchor, one whom Andrew gladly would have let weigh him down. For Robert, though, romantic love is the tenderest of traps. Unlike the self-assured Andrew, the timid Robert’s convictions are fragile, and so he lets Ruth knock him off course with a kiss and an embrace.
When Robert’s feelings for her inevitably ebb and cease to mask his wanderlust, he is, by this point, a forlorn figure with unshakable responsibilities that include co-raising a daughter (Aimée Laurence). Ruth’s response to her husband’s pain is, at best, capricious and, at worst, cruel.
Under the direction of Ciarán O’Reilly, The Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of "Beyond the Horizon" corrects somewhat for O’Neill’s gendered short-sightedness. Burdened with a mean-spirited, invalid mother and the feckless Robert, Ruth should be presented as more than the selfish, beguiling siren of the play’s love triangle.
And the affecting Schmidt does manage to wring credible sympathy from her underwritten part, while her teary-eyed expressions suggest depths of female suffering that the young O’Neill probably could not have appreciated.
O’Reilly judiciously ignores O’Neill’s novelistic stage directions, nicely fitting the sprawling play within The Irish Repertory Theatre’s small confines. He is ably assisted by Hugh Landwehr’s cleverly expressionistic set and Brian Nason’s well-matched lighting design.
At the far end of the stage, just in front of a celestial backdrop, the set’s wooden planks form a raised triangle, meant to signify the hilltop where Robert goes to be alone and think. But it also suggests a compass arrow pointing to the sky, a portent of the only traveling Robert will ever do.
O’Reilly, who brilliantly helmed The Irish Repertory Theatre’s much heralded "The Emperor Jones" a few years back, has an obvious fondness and facility for O’Neill’s work, especially the more problematic examples of it. With "Beyond the Horizon," however, he stumbles, not for a lack of creativity or commitment, but, rather, because the play’s most interesting trait is still its author’s name.
"Beyond the Horizon" runs through April 8 at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. For info or tickets, visit The Irish Repertory Theatre website.