Irish Rep brings its explosive pandemic-delayed production of ‘A Touch of the Poet’ back to the Off-Broadway stage

Originally scheduled to open in March 2020, Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, made its appearance as a top-notch artistically designed digital presentation in October of that year, as part of the company’s “the show must go online” mission. Now, with the return of live theater, it’s back for a powerful in-person Off-Broadway engagement on Irish Rep’s main stage through April 17.

The cast. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

One of the lesser-known works by the Nobel Prize-winning playwright, the heartrending drama – written in 1942, but not produced on Broadway until 1958 (five years after O’Neill’s death) – was intended to be the first in A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed, a nine-part cycle that he never completed about the Irish immigrant experience in America. Set in a village outside Boston in 1828, the tale takes place inside the dining room of Melody’s Tavern, owned by the eponymous debt-ridden transplant Major Cornelius (Con) Melody, and worked by his humble and adoring wife Nora and their defiant daughter Sara.

Praised by the future Duke of Wellington as a hero of the 1809 Battle of Talavera in the Napoleonic Wars, Con, who has forsaken his native Irish brogue for an American accent, proudly dons his old uniform each year to celebrate the anniversary of his victory. He drinks excessively and boasts incessantly of his past and his tenuous European status as a member of the landed gentry, until he’s forced to acknowledge his meagre finances and common Irish roots, when Sara falls in love with and plans to marry Simon Hartford, a wealthy upper-class American guest at the tavern. Their relationship, and the socio-economic disparity between them, sets off a violent reckoning by Con of who he truly is and where he really stands in a stratified, biased, and class-conscious country.

Robert Cuccioli and Belle Aykroyd. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Masterfully directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, the ever-outstanding Robert Cuccioli delivers a stellar characterization of the tragic and tempestuous Con, damaged by his heavy drinking, over-bloated pride, and unrealized social aspirations, as he recites the poetry of Lord Byron and relives his triumph at Talavera. He’s laughably pretentious and self-aggrandizing, viciously insulting, angry, and violent, then remorseful and apologetic, victimized and defeated, in a nuanced performance filled with psychological depth and complexity that shifts dramatically from moment to moment.

Kate Forbes is profoundly affecting as the long-suffering Nora, who is devoted unconditionally to Con, caters to his every mood, and makes excuses for his abusive behavior, saying it’s the liquor talking. She dresses modestly and retains her Irish accent, works hard at the tavern, doing the cooking, cleaning, and shopping with the limited credit still available to them, while waxing poetic to Sara about the meaning and value of love and quietly comprehending the inner pain and insecurity of her troubled and troubling husband who considers her inferior. Unlike her accepting and forgiving mother, Sara, played by Belle Aykroyd in her NYC theater debut, is argumentative and confrontational, declaring her hatred of Con, feigning an Irish brogue to upset him, and berating his treatment of Nora, while following her mother’s example in finding the joy of love with (the unseen) Simon, whose status is so different from her own.

Andy Murray and Robert Cuccioli. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Supporting the three leads is the excellent featured cast of Andy Murray as Con’s long-time friend and military mate Jamie Cregan, who encourages his pride in Talavera and joins him in fighting his current battles; David Beck as Dan Roche, Rex Young as Paddy O’Dowd, and David Sitler as Patch Riley – local Irish immigrants who falsely admire Con to get free drinks and meals at the tavern, where they sing, stomp, and hornpipe to traditional reels; Mary McCann as Simon’s condescending and long-winded mother Deborah Hartford, who discourages his attachment to Sara; and John C. Vennema as the Hartford’s attorney Nicholas Gadsby, sent to make Con an insulting offer that ignites a brutal climax. And James Russell as the tavern barkeep Mickey Maloy is especially sympathetic, heartwarming, and convincing in his affection and concern for the ill-treated Nora.

The compelling performances are enhanced by an historicizing set by Charlie Corcoran and props by Brandy Hoang Collier, period-style character-defining costumes co-designed by Alejo Vietti and Gail Baldoni, with hair and wigs by Robert Charles Vallance and make-up by Joe DeLude. Evocative lighting by Michael Gottlieb, sound by M. Florian Staab, and original music by Ryan Rumery contribute to the changing moods, and distinctive dialect coaching by Amanda Quaid and fight direction by Rick Sordelet add to the production’s authenticity and resonance. It’s a classic that’s rarely seen but well worth revisiting with Irish Rep.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 40 minutes, including an intermission.

A Touch of the Poet plays through Sunday, April 17, 2022, on the Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage at Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $50-70), call the box office at (212) 727-2737, or go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and booster, along with a photo ID, to enter the building, and must wear a mask inside.


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