A Touch of the Poet Review - The Rise of Romantic Pragmatism

The lifetime of Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) reflected a rapidly evolving American culture which he attempted to capture in his writings spanning 1917 to 1942.  In 1935, he decided to pen a cycle of plays showing changes in American thinking by following the evolution of a fictional Massachusetts family, the Harfords. His first play in the cycle, A TOUCH OF THE POET, was produced four times on Broadway over the years, each production receiving acclaim and Tony Award nominations.

Brendan Ferrell, Matt McKenzie, and Julia McIlvaine - Photo by Vitor Martins

Cornelius Melody (Matt McKenzie) owns a seedy tavern on the fringes of Boston. An Irish transplant to the “New World,” Con lives deep inside his compelling memories of past glory – the days when he attended Trinity College in Dublin and was a decorated dragoon officer during Wellington’s Spanish campaign against Napoleon - and carries in his heart a Byronic poetic sensibility. Even though the son of a deceitful and cunning Irish tavern owner, Con sees himself as a “natural aristocrat” as he struts and preens in his red coat, epaulets, and polished boots.

Matt McKenzie, Julia McIlvaine, and Julia Fletcher - Photo by Vitor Martins

In fact, Con is so involved in his personal, egotistical world that he fails to appreciate the people closest to him - or what is going on around him. His loving but enabling wife Nora (Julia Fletcher) and his practical, outspoken daughter Sara (Julia McIlvaine) can’t reach him. His sycophant tavern buddies hang on his every word (secretly laughing inside) so long as the liquor flows free.

Cast of "A Touch of the Poet" - Photo by Vitor Martins

And then the proverbial bomb explodes. Sara and her mother have been caring for a very sick young man in a spare bedroom upstairs. He just so happens to be the oldest son and heir apparent to the Harford family fortunes. And there you have it! A poor, plain-speaking (and very pretty) innkeeper’s daughter and the most eligible man in Boston just happen to fall in love. It’s a stand-off between old and new: the values of a democratic American classless society clashing with the remaining vestiges of European wealth and privilege in the first decades of the nineteenth century. As Con tries to turn forbidden love to his advantage, Sara harnesses her own no-nonsense pragmatic plans.

Julia Fletcher and Matt McKenzie - Photo by Vitor Martins

The entire cast of A TOUCH OF THE POET does a skilled job of bringing O’Neill’s play to life. Even the smallest role shines. Dan Volonte’s set and light design make the most of a very small stage, while Audrey Eisner’s and Sarah Zinsser’s costumes flesh out this period in American history. Keith Stevenson’s sound adds dimension, especially as the motley crew breaks out in alcohol-enhanced song. And let’s not forget talented director Robert Bailey’s sure hand in bringing a long and emotionally volatile production to life. It is always a pleasure to see Eugene O’Neill’s masterful plays performed and performed well. To celebrate its thirtieth anniversary, the Pacific Resident Theatre has again produced a classic with skill and their special brand of expertise.

Matt McKenzie and Julia McIlvaine - Photo by Vitor Martins

A TOUCH OF THE POET runs through December 18, 2016, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays (no performances on Thanksgiving weekend, 11/24-27). The Pacific Resident Theatre is located at 703 Venice Blvd., Venice, CA 90291. Tickets are $25 and $30. For information and reservations, call 310-822-8392 or go online.

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