By Joseph Hurley
BEYOND THE HORIZON, by Eugene O’Neill. Horizon Productions. At The Producers’ Club, 358 West 44th St., NYC. Through Dec. 6.
It would be difficult if not wholly impossible to find a better way of destroying the credibility of a play about a somewhat hermetic Connecticut farm family than by casting an actor with a nearly impenetrable Spanish accent as one brother, while a player whose speech suggests an only sporadically successful attempt to reproduce the tones and inflections of the American West, perhaps Texas, plays his only sibling.
Then, to make it absolutely certain that the felony has been compounded beyond hope of redemption, the work should be housed not in the rural farmhouse setting specified by the author, but in what appears to be a slapdash rendering of a New Mexico mission, complete with a gigantic cross cut into one of the "adobe" walls.
Bizarre as the foregoing may seem, it is precisely the situation with the new production of Eugene O’Neill’s "Beyond the Horizon," the play which, in 1920, won the Irish-American playwright the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes.
Staged by Horizon Productions, an organization whose name might suggest, accurately, that this is the group’s first venture, this odd treatment of the play will be on view at the Producers’ Club, 358 West 44th St., through this Sunday’s 3 p.m. matinee.
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The peculiar assemblage of this particular "Beyond the Horizon" may be a well-meanwhile gesture on the part of what has come to be known as "non-traditional" casting, further complicated by the use of an Hispanic actor in the role of the family’s father, with a Dublin actress as his wife and the mother of his strange sons and an Irish-American performer playing her seagoing brother, a sea captain visiting the family farm just long enough to upset whatever fragile equilibrium the household may contain.
Whatever thinking lay behind the company’s production scheme, the result does absolutely astonishing damage to the tightly knit fabric of this early, nearly-forgotten O’Neill tragedy.
Revived only very infrequently, "Beyond the Horizon," surprisingly enough, showed up only last season in a reasonably excellent staging in the East Village, where its virtues were clearly apparent.
Although the play seems ludicrously ham-fisted now, exactly 80 years after 1918, the year in which O’Neill wrote it, it still manages to indicate to a great extent the sort of writer he would become, and the concerns that would fill his mind, almost to the point of obsession, for the rest of his writing life.
Although O’Neill was only 30 when he wrote "Beyond the Horizon," the play contains clear suggestions and foreshadowings of such later works as "Desire Under the Elms," "Welded," and "Long Day’s Journey Into Night," among others.
Here is the isolated life of a remote Connecticut farm, and here, too, are the ebbing and flowing struggles between two essentially loving brothers, not to mention the conflicts which distance these siblings from their parents, and the parents from each other.
In "Beyond the Horizon," two brothers, Robert and Andrew Maye, struggle with their loyalty to the farm and the land on which they were born and their growing curiosity about the beckoning universe they’ve never experienced, the world suggested by the play’s title.
Ruth Atkins, the daughter of the fatherless family on the next farm, exerts a kind of lure for first one brother and then the other. When the boys’ seafaring uncle, Captain Dick Scott, appears for a brief visit, he offers one of his nephews a shipboard post and therefore an open door leading to potential adventure in the unknown world.
Because of Ruth’s shifting affection, Andrew takes the job at sea, an opportunity clearly better suited to the bookish Robert, who loathes the life of the farm. With Andrew away, first at sea and then in the grain business in Buenos Aires, Ruth marries the wrong brother, Robert, the land-locked dreamer, with sad and even tragic consequences.
Andrew returns to the farm only to find his brother dying, a death that gives O’Neill’s title, "Beyond the Horizon" an altered meaning, a reference to the mysteries that exist, perhaps, past mere mortality.
"Beyond the Horizon" was the fifth full-length play O’Neill wrote, and the first he didn’t tear up or otherwise destroy. It took two long and frustrating years to get the play produced, but when it was finally staged, it brought him major recognition for the very first time.
The play may not automatically seem to be of Pulitzer quality, but when compared to the formulaic works that populated the American stage early in the century, its values perhaps become somewhat clearer.
Walter Pritchard Eaton, a member of the three-man Pulitzer jury, wrote years later that "Beyond the Horizon" had conspicuously possessed "one merit over all competitors, the merit of a tense, driving emotional sincerity, imparting to the spectator — when withdraws a little from the spell of the tragedy — the sense that the dramatist has been imaginatively at the mercy of his people; not manipulating them so much as being manipulated by them."
In a program note, the producer of the Producers’ Club production defends the odd staging by saying that "we chose a cast from a variety of backgrounds and abstracted the sets so that the action could take place wherever and whenever the individual viewer chooses to see it." He adds that his scheme would result in "allowing us to explore O’Neill’s ideas apart from their traditional New England setting."
As executed on the cramped playing space on West 44th Street, this bizarre approach mainly has the effect of thrusting the play’s limitations into clear focus, front and center, while eradicating and obliterating those elements in "Beyond the Horizon" which still bear impact, even after nearly eight decades have passed.