del Rosso Review: Touch of the Poet

“A Touch of the Poet” by Eugene O’Neill is a Performance on Screen presented by The Irish Repertory Theatre. Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, the production features Belle Aykroyd, Ciaran Byrne, Robert Cuccioli, Kate Forbes, Mary McCann, Andy Murray, David O’Hara, Tim Ruddy, David Sitler and John C. Vennema.

The first and only completed play in O’Neill’s proposed 11-part “American history” cycle, “A Touch of the Poet” centers on Major Cornelius (“Con”) Melody (Robert Cuccioli) a once-distinguished, once-wealthy man, to the manor born (that manor being in Ireland), bitterly in denial of his current circumstances. Con has become an alcoholic tavern-keeper in his own failing establishment, Melody Tavern, located in a village a few miles from Boston.  To add insult to injury, Con is also a victim of the 1828 American class system. His once-beautiful wife, Nora (Kate Forbes), is now downtrodden from years of backbreaking work for the tavern and the sake of Con, whom she still loves dearly despite his incessant cruelty. Con, you see, married below his station. His daughter, Sara, (Belle Aykroyd) is headstrong and clashes with both her mother and father, but has found love, she thinks, with a soldier staying on the premises but unseen in the play. The soldier, however, is to the manor born, and Sara is not. His parents oppose such a union. But she only has to look to the recent past to give her a clue.  

O’Neill is extremely good at depicting the sins of the father revisited onto the son – think “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” In “Touch of the Poet” the sins of the mother, Nora, and the father, Cornelious, are revisited onto the daughter, Sara, increasing the dramatic burden on character and actress. Until almost the end of the play, Sara has no familial safe haven, so though she berates her father for living in a fantasy world, she clings to this world, too. In the soldier she loves, she courts that world. When Con finally sheds his affected upper-crust accent in a brutal act of violence, the one who is the most shattered is Sara. 

From the moment he enters the play, Robert Cuccioli’s Con is a ghost of a man. Running on alcoholic fumes – he imbibes only whisky throughout – he becomes increasingly unhinged. He lives for his battles, the women he seduced, his former glory. But I loved his final scenes, when he finally came back down to the Irish earth, where he belongs. 

Belle Aykroyd’s Sara has just enough sympathy for her mother, and a lot of vitriol for her father. The tragic thing about Sara is she does not really know how much her father’s fantasy life means to her until it’s gone.

Centering this play is Kate Forbes’s astonishing Nora. She manages to retain her dignity and her love for Con while taking his brutality. She empathizes with her daughter while also knowing she is going to make the same mistakes she did. All of my empathy went to Nora. I recently heard the definition of genius is to be able to hold two opposing ideas in one’s head at the same time. Kate Forbes can express two opposing emotions at the same time. If “Long Day’s Journey…” is revived by the Irish Rep, she would get my vote for Mary Tyrone. 

These three leads are assisted by an impressive supporting cast and ably directed by Ciarán O’Reilly. “A Touch of the Poet” is another win for the Irish Repertory Theatre’s Performances Onscreen, a bright spot in the otherwise dark days of 2020. 

Mary Folliet Editor