Irish Rep's Timely 'A Touch of the Poet' Is Its Latest Entry in the Shutdown

A Touch of the Poet may not be one Eugene O'Neill's top-tier plays, but it does have a lot of top-tier supporters in the theatrical community. It features larger-than-life characters, and it is extremely timely. Poet is getting a revival of sorts at the Irish Repertory Theatre in an online production starting Tuesday, October 27. Like the company's summer production of Conor McPherson's The Weir, Poet will feature the use of actors in front of a green screen and some computer-generated magic, getting as close to realism as pandemic restrictions allow.

When director Ciarán O'Reilly talked to Newsweek about working on The Weir, he said the next thing he wanted to direct would be a two-character play with tech-savvy actors. Well, he lied a little: Poet has 10 characters and a way more complicated show.

"I don't listen to my own advice," he says. So this was much more of a challenge. "Outside of it being double the number of actors who were scattered around the world, the play involves physical contact—both love and violence. When one actor in New York kisses another in Tennessee, it takes a bit of magic to sell it. Our wonderful editor [Sarah Nichols] and designers [set design is by Charlie Corcoran; costume design, Alejo Vietti; lighting design by Michael Gottlieb; sound design by M. Florian Staab; original music by Ryan Rumery; and hair and wig design by Robert Charles Vallance] are the magicians."

In addition to the editing challenges, there was the small matter of continuity. With actors all over the world, he says, "finding ways to duplicate and triplicate 19th century props and costumes in the middle of a pandemic and have them shipped to actors homes to places as far as Berlin was a dizzying affair. I would like to dedicate this space to UPS to say, that despite their best efforts to not deliver the goods in a timely way or at all, we got the show on!"

Poet was well in the works for an in-person run when the pandemic hit. "We were four weeks into rehearsal when we shut down: says O'Reilly. "The sets were built, the costumes made and fitted, and the sound and lighting designs in place. It was our great fortune that all of the actors and designers were free and game to jump into the madness of the new hybrid."

Written in 1942, A Touch of the Poet did not get produced until 1958, five years after O'Neill's death. Over the years, it has attracted such talents at Jason Robards, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Gabriel Byrne, Emily Bergl, Timothy Dalton and Vanessa Redgrave. Whatever O'Neill's weaknesses, he could write meaty parts for actors.

Poet was the first play in A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed—a projected nine-play cycle, depicting the psychological history on an American family. As described on the theater's website, Poet is the story of Con Melody who "owns a run-down inn and tavern near Boston in 1828. Laden with debt, Con clings to his tenuous identity as a landed gentleman and war hero and chastises his wife and daughter for actions that expose the family's humble Irish origins."

O'Neill's work has become a staple of Irish Rep. In recent years, the company's revivals of The Hairy Ape and The Emperor Jones have helped resurrect the reputation of those plays. But the company has a long history with the playwright. "We are making our way through the canon," says O'Reilly. "We have produced Long Day's Journey, The Hairy Ape, Beyond the Horizon, The Emperor Jones (twice), and two musicals based on O'Neill plays: New Girl in Town (Anna Christie) and Take Me Along (Ah Wilderness!)."

But this play, in 2020, is particularly relevant to O'Reilly. "A Touch of the Poet is a fascinating look at an emigrant family in the early part of the 19th century. Election fever was gripping the country in 1824 and the polarizing figure of Andrew Jackson was on everyone's lips. He was going to be the people's president and drain the swamp of the Yankee establishment. The play resonates!"

What, one might ask, makes this play Irish? While conceding that it would be impossible to briefly define Irish, O'Reilly says, "If we are to zero in on the stereotypes of what defines a 19th-century Irish person, it might be the gift of the gab, the fondness of the drop, devotion to church, the poetic flourish and the fighting spirit. I suppose O'Neill had all that in spades and gave rein to his well-drawn characters to hold forth using those cliché attributes.

"O'Neill famously said, 'The one thing that explains more than anything about me is the fact that I'm Irish, and, strangely enough, it is something that all the writers who have attempted to explain me and my work have overlooked.'"

In addition to being Irish in spirit, O'Neill's plays are timely. "His themes," O'Reilly says, "speak to the disconnect that immigrants feel as they make their way in a new land. Their memories are mythologized, and O'Neill (who never visited Ireland) could be accused of perpetuating the cliché. The sins of colonialism tint every line of O'Neill as he paints a fractured people in broad strokes and these broad strokes reflect not just the Irish experience but the American experiment in all its colors.

"I will leave you with Sean O'Casey's take on O'Neill that says it all: 'Look into this man's work closely, but look deeply as well, and you will find he is like unto the surge of a great orchestra, canceling with its deep and thundering rhythms the tiny tinkle of the castanets ashake in the hands of the minor dancing dramatists.'"

Throughout the pandemic, Irish Rep has offered a wide variety of creative productions: Molly Sweeney with its three different characters in three different locations, talking heads if you will, fit easily into the traditional Zoom play format; The Weir's use of green screen and computer-generated imagery gave an illusion of realism; Love, Noël made use of two actors who had been tested for COVID and were working in the same room. With its post-shutdown productions, the theater has charted a clever and innovative course to navigate the pandemic. And just in case, the company is now working on a possible online spring season.

A Touch of the Poet begins streaming on Tuesday, October 27. It is free, but a donation is suggested. For more information and tickets go to IrishRep.org.

Robert Cicolli in Touch of the Poet
Robert Cucccoli stars as Con Melody in Irish Rep's online production of Eugene O'Neill's "A Touch of the Poet," which starts streaming on October 27. Irish Repertory Theatre