Major Cornelius “Con” Melody is a dreamer, but his dreams are all in the past. That’s when the grudging Irishman was strong, respected, and given to far-flung romantic adventures like his favorite poet Lord Byron. Much to his apparent disappointment, Con just didn’t have the Byronic good fortune of dying young, too. Still, the actual tragedy of Eugene O’Neill’s haughty, castle-born protagonist isn’t that his glory days are long gone; it’s that, deep down, he knows they are.
As Annie Savoy, another fictitious poetry aficionado once observed, “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.” This bit of Bull-Durham wisdom is also the animating insight of A Touch of the Poet, O’Neill’s posthumously premiered near masterpiece in which the verse-afflicted inevitably fall prey to the harsh light of reality. Preening around the Irish Rep’s mainstage in an immaculately preserved cavalry uniform while rhapsodizing about his almost two-decade-old combat exploits, it seems as if the aging and perpetually soused Con (Robert Cuccioli) is beyond any type of sober epiphany that would threaten the continuation of his merciful blindness.
There are cracks, however, in Con’s pretentious vision of himself, widened by his brutally forthright daughter Sara (Belle Aykroyd) who incessantly reminds Con what he became after dubiously fighting for the British during the Peninsular War: a debt-ridden innkeeper living in America among a drunken lot (David Beck, David Sitler, and Rex Young) that humors his ridiculous affectations in return for free whiskey. Philandering, profligacy, and hubris are to blame for Con’s wretched state, but, of course, he lays the blame elsewhere, most contemptibly on his long-suffering wife Nora (Kate Forbes) who adores him without complaint or obvious regret.
Why she does is more about how Nora sees herself than anything else. When Con calls Nora a peasant, accuses her of getting pregnant with Sara as a marriage trap, or verbally abuses her in some other way, there is always the perception that Nora agrees with him. And when Con apologizes for his emotional cruelty, which he sometimes does in the same breadth as committing it, that, to his beaten-down wife, is love.
Engaged in a budding romance with an unseen guest she’s nursing back to health upstairs, the headstrong Sara regards her mother’s marriage as a cautionary example, resolving to wrestle the sacrament into something mutually beneficial. But we quickly see patterns repeating themselves, with Sara determined to bridge the yawning class chasm between her well-heeled, utopian sweetheart and herself. That, though, isn’t the only problem. When the young man’s mother (Mary McCann) deftly warns Sara that her son also suffers from the proverbial touch of the poet, Sara takes the advice defensively rather than as it was intended: a kindness from one woman to another.
Meanwhile, Con sees the potential match as an opportunity for financial gain, wrongly assuming that gentrified bloodlines, even those less than a generation removed from poverty, have value in his new country. With businesslike condescension, a lawyer (John C. Vennema) sent by the young man’s plutocratic father imparts a blunt lesson that in 1820’s America, capital is already king. This insult to Con’s ego sets in motion a comeuppance bereft of any bitter delight, especially from Sara who finds herself unexpectedly mourning Con’s vanquished pride.
Director Ciarán O’Reilly confidently lets the clever cast explore their characters’ profound complexities, which means forcing the audience to simply accept a few psychological contradictions. At its best, watching the play feels like eavesdropping on a real family whose lives are unfolding before us naturally. Dramatically, it’s a little messy but also much more human. Where the play falters somewhat is at the very beginning, with a long, exposition-laden exchange between a gossipy bartender (James Russell) and Con’s old war buddy (Andy Murray) that is less a scene than an information-delivery system. Fortunately, the put-upon Russell and Murray enjoy later opportunities to put their estimable skills to better use.
As usual for an Irish Rep production, A Touch of the Poet looks and sounds fantastic, with Charlie Corcoran’s impressively detailed scenic design combining with M. Florian Staab’s aural rendering of an offstage tavern to give the audience an amazingly authentic sense of time and place. While Alejo Vietti and Gail Baldoni’s period-perfect costumes contribute to this effect, they lend a hand in character development, too, most vividly when it comes to Con’s military garb and fondness for dressing in royal purple. Delving below the surface, Michael Gottlieb’s unsettling lighting during Con’s mirror monologues suggest the mental fracturing happening before our eyes.
As a program note reminds us, A Touch of the Poet was originally supposed to hit the Irish Rep’s boards in early 2020 before the pandemic sent the production to our computer screens. That digital performance was a welcome relief during a difficult time. But, without a doubt, seeing all this talent and creativity in person is the much bigger relief.
A Touch of the Poet (through April 17, 2022)
The Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-727-2737 or visit http://www.irishrep.org
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission