A Village Voice reporter last fall quoted me as saying that Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls “talks a great show….But it’s backfired on him because he can fail to deliver.” What he left out was the context of my criticism: Like any artist Falls can fail, but when he does deliver, his productions are revelatory. Like Rat in the Skull, starring Brian Dennehy, at Wisdom Bridge more than a decade ago. Like The Night of the Iguana at Goodman in 1994. Like Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh at the Goodman, starring Dennehy, in 1990. And like this month’s Falls-Dennehy rematch, O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet. Staged with a notable absence of technical gimmickry, the better to focus the audience’s attention on the language and the director’s attention on the acting, this full-blooded revival vigorously embraces O’Neill’s raw juxtapositions–of naturalism and expressionism, of historical melodrama and mythic tragedy, of fictional invention and autobiographical confession, of despairing bleakness, outrageous comedy, and heroic lyricism. These are what make O’Neill so important (if often unacknowledged) an influence on contemporary “masters,” who mostly pale by comparison.

Written from 1935 to 1942, around the same time as Iceman and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, this lesser-known but by no means lesser drama explores many of the same themes. It’s the only completed portion of an 11-play cycle, “A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed,” in which O’Neill intended to dramatize the spiritual failure of successive generations of an American family torn between idealistic aspiration and grasping materialism. O’Neill destroyed his drafts of the other plays (except for More Stately Mansions, the unfinished sequel to A Touch of the Poet), but perhaps completed this one because it struck closer to home. Though most of the cycle was meant to focus on the English-descended Harford dynasty, A Touch of the Poet centers on an Irish immigrant clearly inspired by O’Neill’s blustering, tippling actor-father, James O’Neill. And though it’s set in 1828–it includes references to the Napoleonic wars, Lord Byron, and Andrew Jackson–the play draws from the same bottomless well of psychic blood as Long Day’s Journey. (The Cambridge Guide to Theatre rightly describes O’Neill as “an emotional hemophiliac.”)

Cornelius “Con” Melody–the nickname signals his propensity for self-deception, while his surname reminds us of his penchant for poetic language–is the proprietor of a run-down roadside inn in a small town near Boston. He squanders its dwindling profits on wine and whiskey and the upkeep of a prize mare, symbol of his proclaimed former status as Irish country gentry. In fact, he’s just trying to hide his heritage as the son of a “thievin’ shebeen keeper who got rich by money-lendin'” (as one of the tavern’s regulars comments) under the stiff-backed bearing and tailored redcoat of a British military officer. Decorated by the Duke of Wellington for his bravery at the battle of Talavera–so he claims, at least–“Major” Melody clings to his rank even though he resigned it in disgrace, after killing the husband of a woman he’d seduced. Now, left with only his memories–or fantasies–he lords it over his shanty-Irish sycophants while his wife and daughter keep the tavern going as best they can.

Con’s relationship with the two women is the crux of the play. Nora, praised as a saint by the bar’s habitues, is a peasant whose devotion to her husband is literally slavish: the first act finds her on her knees scrubbing the floor while he relaxes at the breakfast table, reading the newspaper and fighting off the shakes as he indulges in a little “hair of the dog.” Constantly misused by a man who feels he married beneath him, Nora clings with primal pride to her love even as she attributes her unhappy state to punishment for her “sin”: she married Con because she was pregnant. The product of that union is rebellious Sara, as resentful of Con as Nora is loyal to him. Filled with contempt for her father, which she expresses in no uncertain terms in a series of fierce dialogues, Sara has her eye on Simon Harford, a dreamer confined to an upstairs bedroom at the inn while he recovers from an illness. (Both Simon and Con, we’re told, have “a touch of the poet” about them–a seeming compliment that actually indicates their limitations.) For Sara, Simon is a way out of her father’s house and up the social ladder–yet by the time she gives herself to Simon sexually, she’s convinced she loves him for himself.

O’Neill unabashedly emulates Greek tragedy in several ways.

One is to have significant events transpire offstage, then be reported by a messenger, prompting emotionally charged responses from the principal characters. (We never see Sara’s seduction by–or of–Simon; indeed, Simon never appears at all.) Another similarity is the articulation of those responses in long set pieces. These are the strength and challenge of A Touch of the Poet; the great accomplishment of Falls and his cast is how they convey both the artistry of O’Neill’s language–its rich, raw imagery and epic rhetorical construction–and the dramatic interplay among the characters. Enhancing the play’s eloquent poetry and vigorous drama is the production’s realistic anchoring in the milieu of postcolonial America, suggested by set designer Derek McLane and costume designer Birgit Rattenborg Wise in every detail, from the uneven planks of the tavern’s bare wood floor and grimy windows to the bartender’s long-stemmed pipe and thick-nailed boots.

Memorable passages include Nora’s rapturous paean to her obstinate, all-consuming love, one of the touchstones of Pamela Payton-Wright’s moving performance as the bone-weary wife; the chilling warning against marrying Simon that Sara receives from his Cassandra-like mother, played with breathtakingly controlled rage by the technically superb Deanna Dunagan; and Con’s climactic catharsis of self-recrimination, which leads to self-understanding, delivered by Dennehy in a devastating tour de force. Stripped of his illusions in a brawl–vividly described by Irish actor Kevin Henry in the messengerlike role of Con’s old army buddy–Con drops his soldier’s facade and aristocratically clipped speech to become the thick-brogued brute he always feared he was, with no pretenses about the past or hope for the future. Hulking and apelike, his battered face twisted into a grim leer and his clothes stained red with blood–shed by the horse he’s sacrificed to his dead dreams–Con confesses his failure in a grotesque display of the animal lurking in every man, acting out the ugliest Irish stereotypes an Irishman knows.

It would be easy to dismiss this play as fatally old-fashioned; many of the issues it addresses–premarital sex and pregnancy, alcoholism, codependency, the status of women–are viewed in a wholly different way than they were in O’Neill’s time, not to mention the early 19th century. Where O’Neill found a tattered heroism in Con’s struggle with booze and Nora’s all-consuming love, we see these as pathologies in need of intervention. (I can just hear Sara saying to Con as he launches into yet another nostalgic reverie: “Dad, you are so previous! Get a life!”) But A Touch of the Poet affirms the continuing, universal power of O’Neill’s writing. The critic Harold Clurman, who directed the first American production of A Touch of the Poet several years after O’Neill’s death, attributes this power to the sense of “moral schizophrenia” and “everlasting duality” in his characters, who speak “in two voices…one of rage, the other of apology.” Today we call this propensity “mood swings,” but our more sophisticated attitude doesn’t make the characters’ psychology any less potent.

That potency may be partly the result of O’Neill’s source: his own family life. Con’s mother, we’re told, died in childbirth; O’Neill’s nearly did too, and though she lived she became addicted to the morphine doctors gave her for the pain. Nora’s superstitious, guilt-ridden Catholicism comes straight from O’Neill’s mother; and O’Neill himself shared Con’s pompous habit of declaiming Byron’s “Childe Harold” (“I have not loved the World, nor the World me”) while preening in a mirror. Con’s battles with Sara reflect both O’Neill’s fights with his father and with his rebellious daughter Oona (who while still a teenager married the 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin, against O’Neill’s wishes: he eventually disinherited her). The autobiographical content combined with the sheer power of the language makes the play feel authentic despite its extremes. Certainly no playwright has surpassed O’Neill at capturing the dynamic of a dysfunctional yet deeply bonded family: the first act delineates the quintessential relationship between an alcoholic parent and an almost-adult child, a relationship torn by hate, compassion, and mutual need.

The production’s one weakness is Jenny Bacon’s Sara. Relying on a more internal style of acting than the seasoned Dennehy and Payton-Wright, Bacon too often swallows her lines; while I believed in what she was feeling, I had trouble hearing what she was saying. (In her defense, she reportedly had a cold.) More crucial, she doesn’t emerge as the mirror image of Con that I think O’Neill intended, the way that Colleen Crimmins’s fiery Sara did so brilliantly in Commons Theatre’s production ten years ago. A Touch of the Poet is a portrait of father and daughter–parent and child–locked in a struggle O’Neill knew all too well: prideful, foolish, impetuous, and tragically heroic despite the horrible wrong both parties do each other, their loved ones, and themselves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.