Beyond the Horizon
The Irish Repertory Theatre
Eugene O’Neill led a bohemian existence and honed his craft on short plays for The Provincetown Players before bringing out his first feature-length play, Beyond the Horizon, on Broadway in 1920, when he was in his early thirties. That play earned O’Neill the Pulitzer Prize, the first of four he won, and he went on to major success and acclaim. The narrative is a classic tragedy mixed with old-time melodrama: poetic, college-educated Robert (Lucas Hall) is set to leave the farm of his youth and go to sea, but instead he stays to marry a girl, Ruth (Wrenn Schmidt), who had been all but promised to his brother Andrew (Rod Brogan). And so Andrew goes to sea and Robert stays on the farm, and the play carefully plots the deterioration of this family, with poor Ruth as the one who suffers most for the mistake that has been made.
What’s so touching and unusual about O’Neill’s play is that there are several moments when the characters look outside of their situation and try to make it work and to be understanding and good to each other. This isn’t the kind of play where the characters cling to their self-delusions even as they are destroyed; what makes the drama so poignant is that these people keep trying to break free of the large mistake they made with their lives, and there is genuine hope at every turn, even when luck and fate have turned Ruth into a burned-out shell of her former self. This production at the Irish Repertory Theatre (through April 15), is beautifully designed by Hugh Landwehr and directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, and the acting is steady and imaginative. In the first scene, there’s an air of unreality, almost as if this were a cheery musical. But this seems to be a choice, for in the third scene there is a brutally contrasting sense of the drudgery of farm life and extreme hot weather wearing everyone down.
Any O’Neill play is a test for an actor, and this one is no different; it demands a lot from a performer over the course of two long acts. Everyone does well, but Schmidt is exceptionally good as Ruth, pushing herself to the limit of despair and anger when she finally explodes at her husband. She doesn’t quite have the low notes in her voice yet for Ruth’s last scenes, but her imaginative sympathy for her character is so intense that when Andrew denounces her at the end, it feels particularly misogynist and unfair of him. At the curtain call, Schmidt was still all broken up, which moved me just as much as her performance had; she’s young, and she’s giving this her all and more than her all, and this demands respect and tribute. Beyond the Horizon makes demands on an audience, too, as all O’Neill plays do, but it more than repays them. This is a must-see production that proves again just how valuable the Irish Rep is at its best.