A Touch of the Poet

Eugene O'Neil
Studio 54, New York
(2006)

Gabriel Byrne in A Thouch of the Poet

Gabriel Byrne towers over this picture of delusional madness and the effect that it has on a family.

Just outside Boston in 1828, lies a tavern belonging to Con Melody. This proud Irishman had fought heroically with Wellington at Talavera and still upholds the standards of the past, when he grew up in a castle complete with 300 acres of land.

Now, he runs an inn with his wife and daughter, who between them do the skivvying, as the business fails to make money. The Wildean Con, playing up to a fantasy of himself as a latter-day Byron, is happy to lord it over them, drinking away the profits, aided by a bevy of Chekhovian hangers on from the old country.

Con has an upper class English accent and an overbearing manner that cannot abide opposition. He also has a mad temper but after regular explosions, soon relents and apologises - always too late.

His wife, Dearbhla Molloy's Nora, is a saintly woman who is still desperately in love. She willingly and thanklessly slaves away to keep him happy. The same cannot be said of daughter Sara, played by Emily Bergl. She resents begging for credit and acting as waitress.

This pair both act their parts well, although Miss Bergl struggles to keep her Yankee intonations from the anticipated Irish brogue.

Her chance for escape arrives in the form of the never-seen Yankee, Simon Harford. He is the son of a nouveau riche family who has taken a year out to live off the land, Thoreau-style. After falling sick, he is nursed and gently seduced by Sara who sees her chance to escape from her loving but unbearable father.

The play's turning point occurs late, as Sara is rejected by Simon's family and Con goes off on the warpath, in full dress uniform. Unsurprisingly, he is literally beaten and this provokes an amazing change in him, though whether for the better or worse may be questionable.

Director, Doug Hughes' production catches the atmosphere nicely with Santo Loquasto's charred-looking inn and more colourful costumes aided by appropriate music from Uillean Pipes played on stage by David Power.

This play is a chilling portrait of a madman who is alternately hateful and sympathetic, very much like the General in Strindberg's Dance of Death. By the end of an uncomfortable evening, one feels for the family but wonders why he wasn't banged up long before.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher