American Blues Theatre

at Bailiwick Repertory Theatre

The announcement of American Blues Theatre’s Hairy Ape stated that the play, one of Eugene O’Neill’s most important early works, hadn’t been produced professionally in Chicago for 65 years. Can this be true? That would mean it hadn’t received a professional staging here since the time of its first production — it ran on Broadway in 1922, with a cast headed by Louis Wolheim and Carlotta Monterey (the latter eventually to become O’Neill’s wife).

It seems strange, at first, that Hairy Ape is so rarely done. Despite its 1920s avant-garde expressionism, there’s nothing in it that would seem inaccessible to a reasonably educated contemporary audience; its use of masks (the first play in which O’Neill sought to emulate the symbolic use of masks in Greek drama, one of his deepest influences), its scenes of group ritual, its hallucinatory blending of realism and fantasy, and certainly its theme — a common man’s fall from grace and quest for belonging in a hostile, godless modern society — aren’t particularly challenging stuff now, though they may have been when O’Neill was working with the experimentally oriented Provincetown Players.

Why, then, the infrequent production record for this seminal, haunting drama? Perhaps it’s the challenging scenic requirements; the action wanders from the hellish stokehole of a steam-powered ocean liner to the glittering streets of New York’s East 50s, and O’Neil’s descriptions of each scene’s settings are extremely detailed, with an eye to specific symbolic resonances. Perhaps it’s the lead role, Yank, a part that O’Neill himself feared was unplayable. By all accounts, Louis Wolheim, the original Yank, proved O’Neill wrong; but an actor with Wolheim’s blend of brute physicality and emotional sensitivity (he’s best remembered as the sergeant in the film All Quiet on the Western Front) seldom comes along. Perhaps it’s O’Neill’s language — a daunting mixture of realistic working-class colloquialisms and subconscious feeling expressed in declamatory, almost incantatory monologues that, to work onstage, must be treated as believable speech. O’Neill’s language requires actors of exceptional vocal range, power, and stamina — especially in the case of Yank, who spends much of the play bellowing about his own strength and speed, his newness and sense of belonging in the world.

The American Blues Theatre production is an earnest but uneven effort at bringing O’Neill’s vision to the stage. Director William Payne sticks pretty much to the script — which, as I’ve indicated, is quite exact in specifying the dramatic and scenic effects O’Neill wanted. The chorus of Yank’s crew mates, huddled below decks in their steel cage of bunks, is a properly simian band of man apes, members of a tribal culture that’s quite distinct from the “civilized” world above decks. The scene in which they shovel coal into the ship’s furnace is a fearsome vision of hell, eerily lit and overflowing with smoke and noise. (The production’s overall use of sound is superb.)

On some occasions, Payne adds his own interpretive touches — the most prominent of which reflect O’Neill’s belief that the play needed masks to underscore the sense of alienation Yank comes to feel after his pride is dashed in a shaming confrontation with a rich, shallow heiress. O’Neill did not call for masks in the script, but they were added during rehearsal for the premiere, and in his later writings O’Neill said he thought their use in Hairy Ape should be expanded. Payne, I think, goes a little too far — or perhaps not far enough; especially in the second-act scene in which the revenge-obsessed Yank tries to join the Industrial Workers of the World because he thinks they’re a terrorist group, Payne’s use of masks and bird mannerisms for the Wobblies obscures the very real interest O’Neill had in their cause (though he ultimately rejected leftist politics as inadequate to address the spiritual crisis being suffered by Yank — and by extension by modern man). Later, though, in Yank’s final encounter with a gorilla in the zoo, Payne employs a remarkable image: the gorilla to which Yank compares himself is played by a lean, graceful, nude man in an elegant ape mask. At one point during Yank’s speech to the gorilla, the beast suddenly, silently leaps up and hangs upside down from its cage — the way a real ape would but (because of the actor’s slim physique) much more beautifully.

It is in such quiet moments as these — the scene in which Yank — the “hairy ape” — and the heiress stare at each other in shocked, silent fear is another — that Payne’s Hairy Ape really comes to life. The rest of the time, despite the sincerity and intelligence with which Payne and his actors work, the production is hampered by the actors’ inadequate technique, especially vocal technique. Tom Geraty, as Yank, has the physical build the part requires — heavily developed arm and shoulder muscles, as befits a ship’s stoker, and a height that makes us all the more conscious of his stooping, apelike posture. But his speech — even after the audience acclimates itself to the dialect of an illiterate, Irish-descended lout “dragged up” along the Brooklyn waterfront — is often obscured or only barely audible; certainly it never rings with the awesome intensity of rage and passion that O’Neill sought. Paddy, the old Irishman who speaks a paean to the lost days when men worked on sailing ships and belonged to the sun and the sea, is played by a woman, Christine McHugh, which certainly serves to set Paddy’s lines apart from everyone else’s; but McHugh’s atrocious, nearly incomprehensible Irish brogue muddles her extremely important lines. (One of the most important subthemes in the script — the fact that Yank, who calls himself “new stuff,” has turned his back on his own Irish roots, as represented by Paddy — is completely lost.) As the heiress Mildred and her reactionary aunt, Lisa Tejero and Laura Riddle engage in excessive posturing that plays well with the audience — especially Riddle, who is got up to look like a cross between Miss Piggy and a Cabbage Patch Kid — but makes it impossible to consider them at all human, which we must do, since it is Yank’s obsession with proving his humanity to Mildred that fuels the bulk of the play.

These flaws notwithstanding, The Hairy Ape bears attention; its story of a common man whose self-satisfaction is fatally shaken when he realizes he’s been used by an aloof, selfish society sounds a startlingly familiar note in the declining years of the Reagan era, and the grandeur of O’Neill’s dramatic voice is something that should be kept alive.