Beyond the Horizon must be one of Eugene O’Neill’s worst plays—it is humorless, overlong, and maudlin, with language that is almost insultingly obvious; only minutes after curtain, Robert Mayo (Lucas Hall), a dreamer about to leave his life on his father’s farm, announces, “It’s just Beauty that’s calling me … in quest of the secret which is hidden there, beyond the horizon.” He hardly gets in another line before letting the title slip again: “I got to know all the different kinds of sunsets by heart. And all those sunsets took place over there—beyond the horizon.” If one were to closely examine the text, one might be lead to believe this horizon is some sort of metaphor.
But despite waxing poetic, happiness is not to last for Robert Mayo and his family: after discovering that his childhood friend Ruth Atkins (Wrenn Schmidt) returns his love and has not fallen for his brother Andy (Rod Brogan), as the two assumed, the young man abandons his plans to become a sailor on a ship captained by his Uncle Dick (John Thomas Waite). Andy, the natural-born farmer who is expected to build up the land, instead runs away to sea, hurt by Ruth’s feelings for Robert. As the years peel away, these characters consistently try to do the right thing and instead watch their lives and the lives of the ones they love fall apart; both parents and children succumb to death, lovers turn bitter, and the farm atrophies. The idealism of Act One transforms into a bitter realism by Act Three, and Andy notes that they are all stuck “like a fly in molasses.”
Now, even in his greatest works, O’Neill never exercised much subtlety or sparseness of language, but he did have a sense of humor about his characters’ situations. Beyond the Horizon is relentlessly stark. Randomly point your finger to any place in the script and you’re bound to find a line like, “I could curse God from the bottom of my soul—if there was a God!” or, “What kind of woman are you? Couldn’t you have kept silent? Did you have to torture him? No wonder he’s dying!” This is the kind of writing we would expect from a half-forgotten ‘thirties Hollywood melodrama, not a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Robert Mayo and company can do nothing but moan about their station in life, about their failures and their lost dreams, which can become the slightest bit tiresome after nearly three hours. Even the melancholy Dane cracked a joke here and there.
The failure of the Irish Rep’s revival, then, mostly belongs to the play and not the production. Mr. Brogan turns in a fine performance, playing Andy with an amiable genuineness that is greatly appreciated. Mr. Hall, too, is well cast as Robert, though I do not envy the actor who has to spend most of his time onstage drowsily sweating and wasting away. Ms. Schmidt, however, may be the most awful actress I have seen in years. In an attempt to convey that her character has died inside, she spends the entire third act rattling off her lines in an automatic monotone, an admittedly risky choice but one that should have been unquestionably dropped the moment it was first tried. It is the kind of decision that operates as a crutch for the unintelligent and unimaginative performer—she no longer has to act but simply to speak the lines that have been written down for her; the whole thing is so obvious and so idiotic we wonder how it ever got past director Ciarán O’Reilly.
Granted, Beyond the Horizon is rarely produced and it is always nice when a theater selects unusual plays instead of the standard greatest hits. Perhaps in the future we’ll see something that actually deserves an audience—James Joyce’s Exiles, for example?
Beyond the Horizon runs through April 15th at the Irish Repertory Theatre. 132 W. 22nd Street New York, NY.