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O'Neill examines a range of emotions in A Touch

A Touch of the Poet

Written by Eugene O'Neill.

Directed by Joe Dowling.

Starring Daniel J. Travanti, Dearbhla Molloy, and Elizabeth Marvel.

American Repertory Theatre, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge.

Now through March 26.

By Ann Ames
Arts Editor

Before the play even begins, the staging of Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet at the American Repertory Theatre is captivating. The set lies on a low wooden platform rotated 90 degrees with respect to the stage. One of its corners points down the center of the theater, diminishing lateral space to create an oppressively narrow perspective. The tall, shabby walls of the tavern's dining room loom drearily over a few tables on the floor that seems too small. Within these confines the actors play out a day in the life of the Melodys, an Irish family trying to make its way in America.

The details of Cornelius "Con" Melody's (Daniel J. Travanti) sordid background are divulged in the opening scene, in a discussion between Mickey Maloy (Royal Miller), the tavern's bartender, and Jamie Cregan (Jack Willis), Con's cousin and former comrade-in-arms. This is a shaky beginning to the performance; Miller's weak brogue and contrived gestures are distracting, and Willis stumbled over a line.

Con had been a wealthy man in the old country, with an estate his peasant father had built up by less-than-noble means. As a "gentleman," Con had served in the British army during the Peninsular Wars and been commended for his bravery, rising to the rank of "major" before being discharged and nearly court-martialed; caught in bed with a Spanish nobleman's wife, Con challenged the man to a duel and killed him. In disgrace, he returned to his estate and the peasant wife, Nora (Dearbhla Molloy), and daughter he'd left behind.

Con loved Nora but was ashamed of her ignorance and poverty. Having ruined his name, both within his native land and abroad in Europe, he set off for America with Nora and the infant girl. He could not leave his foolish pride behind, however, and Yankee tradesmen took full advantage of it; they swindled him out of his fortune soon after his arrival in the United States. by selling him an inn on a defunct stagecoach line.

In his pride Con refuses to accept the reality of his squalid life. Blinded by whiskey and memories, he still dresses in the manner of an English gentleman. He spouts the poetry of Lord Byron and rides a thoroughbred mare he cannot afford. Nora, her back nearly broken by years of managing the business almost entirely on her own, loves and pities him, feeding his dreams of past grandeur though he shows her little kindness in return. Their daughter, Sara (Elizabeth Marvel), now 20 years old, despises Con's cruelty and undeserved privilege, and takes every opportunity to make her hatred plain to all within earshot.

Con Melody is a repulsive man. As Travanti struts around the stage in his pristine, archaic clothing, an oddity and an embarrassment in the simple dining room, it really seems that he sees his fields of glory in place of the tavern's depressing walls. His rare displays of tenderness for Nora usually occur while he is remembering her as a beautiful young girl on his estate. He may draw her close, but when he looks at her and finds, instead of his dream, the haggard old woman he has made of her, he shoves her away with a harsh insult.

Nevertheless, Nora loves Con unconditionally. She is still racked with the guilt of having made love to him before they were married, but she would rather burn in hell than confess to a priest, because Con has forbidden it. She takes his abuses meekly, as though it were her punishment as a sinner, and yet her eyes sparkle in the pride of her love. A woman of such tremendous subtle strength could easily be portrayed as a simpering martyr, but remarkably this does not happen at all. Molloy projects the humility and power in her frail character without resorting to emotional hooks.

Sara's bitter tongue is almost as cruel as Con's; its severity is more acceptable only because she uses it as a constant attempt to open her father's eyes. She works hard to help her mother, and tries to protect her during Con's drunken rages. But at the same time, she puts on her own airs to snub the inn's barroom clientele and attract Simon Harford, a young Yankee gentleman she has fallen in love with.

Sara first mentions Simon with a combination of shy admiration and scheming ambition. Though he usually inhabits a small cottage by the lake on her father's property, he has become ill and so is staying at the inn where Sara can take care of him. Marvel leaps dizzyingly between Sara's girlish swoons and passionate defenses of Simon's ideals, and there is no question of her love for him. But grandiose dreams of wealth and high social status edge her love with a shadow of practicality.

When Simon's mother, Deborah (Margaret Gibson), pays them a visit to determine the whereabouts of her son, Sara becomes certain that Deborah hates her. In an odd monologue, Deborah reflects on the Harford family history and warns Sara against marrying Simon, though this is not for the reason Sara thinks. She is simultaneously coy and frank, and her acerbic wit is far too sophisticated for Sara to understand. Gibson delivers each barb with the appropriate mixture of elegance and bitterness. When she says, "Even my husband has a dream -- a conservative, material dream, naturally," she changes her expression in mid-sentence from detached narration to quiet but marked disapproval. Sara has no comprehension of such subtlety and misses Deborah's point entirely, thinking that her disdain is in direct response to Sara's heritage.

This, like most of Sara's character judgments, is made solely on the basis of social status. She despises the drunkards who populate the inn's bar, she loathes her father, and she is ashamed when she introduces her dear mother to Deborah Harford. As a final blow to her character, she is appalled when, at the end of the play, her father finally wakes from his dream. She hates "the Major," but she hates the thought of carrying peasant blood even more.

A Touch of the Poet is many things. It is a love story. It is an historical drama. It is a comic tragedy. And it is not to be missed.