Con Melody is a drunk saddled with a run-down tavern outside Boston, who fancies himself a European war hero born in an Irish castle. He’s a vain, moody character living an illusion in “A Touch of the Poet.”
The audience for the Irish Repertory Theatre’s online production of Eugene O’Neill’s play is also living in an illusion, but a much happier one. Our illusion is that Robert Cuccioli, who portrays Con, and the rest of the ten-member cast are all moving around designer Charlie Corcoran’s set on the stage of the Irish Rep, although we were told in the credits rolling on the screen at the start that they are actually performing separately in locations ranging from New Jersey to Tennessee to Berlin. It’s an impressive achievement by the creative team, director (Ciarán O’Reilly), designers (especially Corcoran and costumer Alejo Vietti) and video editor (Sarah Nichols.) It only occasionally looks a bit weird. That happens when two or more characters face one another without social distancing (although they are actually many miles apart); they tend to blend together like cinema ghosts, or look somewhere other than directly into each other’s eyes. Such minor glitches feel inevitable in a push to forge a new hybrid genre. Ultimately, this period costume drama produced for the screen during the pandemic feels like a full stage production; it’s certainly more satisfying than a standard Zoom reading.
“A Touch of the Poet” was first performed on Broadway in 1958, five years after the death of the playwright, who originally planned it as part of an ambitious 11-play cycle tracing a single Irish-American family over the course of some two centuries. (This play and its sequel “More Stately Mansions” are the only two completed plays from the planned cycle.) “A Touch of the Poet” is set in 1828. As we learn in the (extensive) exposition at the top of the play, Con was actually the off-spring of a social-climbing Irish peasant, who pushed for his son to be a “gentleman,” but neither father nor son were never quite accepted into the gentry.
This helps explain Con Melody’s pretentious, prickly personality. He keeps a mare, in order to bolster the illusion of his continuing grandeur, and spends what little money he has to take care of it, rather than on food for his family.
Con’s character – and his fate — seem baked into his very name, as does his fate. Con feels conned – by the Yankees, for one, who, when he first arrived in America, persuaded him to buy the tavern. He is also a con man of sorts, conning himself to believe that he is superior to all those around him, especially his Irish peasant wife Nora (Kate Forbes), whom he constantly demeans and disdains, but who nevertheless complete adores him; and their daughter Sara (Belle Aykroyd), who openly despises him.
Sara cannot understand why Nora puts up with her father – until she herself falls in love with one Simon Harford. He is a Thoreau-like idealist who is recuperating upstairs in the Melody Inn, after getting sick from exposure while communing with Nature in a rustic cabin. Much of the action of the play — which takes in a single night that is the anniversary of Con’s heroics in the Battle at Talavera — involves the conflicts between the pompous Melody and the wealthy Yankee Harfords. The only Harford we actually meet is Simon’s mother Deborah (Mary McCann.)
It is the unseen Simon whom one character describes as having the touch of the poet. But it is Con who incessantly recites Lord Byron, whom he sees as a kind of kin (certainly the Lord part), until he gets his comeuppance, and he starts to support Andrew Jackson for president, a man whom he previously dismissed as a contemptible “idol of the riffraff”(!)
“A Touch of the Poet” is blessed with a fine cast, especially the memorably expressive Kate Forbes as a woman worn out from abuse, deprivation and hard work, but still kind and loving. The character of Con Melody is the most challenging role, a mercurial character who lashes out at his family and then quickly apologizes, who sneers and preens, but then is stunned and despondent by a turn of events that almost make him a sympathetic figure. Robert Cuccioli handles such a character credibly; he’s had some practice; he’s probably best known for his 1997 Tony-nominated role in the musical “Jekyll & Hyde.”
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly
Set Design by Charlie Corcoran
Costume Design by Alejo Vietti
Lighting Design by Michael Gottlieb
Sound Design and Mix by M. Florian Staab
Original Music by Ryan Rumery
Video Editing by Sarah Nichols
Hair and Wig Design byRobert Charles Vallance
Makeup Artist: Joe Dulude
Belle Aykroyd as Sara Melody
Ciaran Byrne as Dan Roche
Robert Cuccioli as Cornelius “Con” Melody
Kate Forbes as Nora Melody
Mary McCann as Deborah Harford
Andy Murray as Cregan
David O’Hara as Paddy O’Dowd
Tim Ruddy as Mickey Maloy
David Sitler as Patch Riley
John C. Vennema as Nicholas Gadsby
Estimated Running Time: 2.5 hours including an intermission
Remaining performances: Friday, October 30 at 8pm EDT
Saturday, October 31 at 3pm* & 8pm EDT
Sunday, November 1 at 3pm EST