A Touch of the Poet Director Robert Bailey interview – Electric and Emotionally Gut Wrenching
By Ester Benjamin Shifren
Robert Bailey, Director
Matt McKenzie, Ron Garen, August Grahn, and Dennis Madden
Only one American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, has ever received the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is a four-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize as well, and his masterwork “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (Tony Award for Best Play) is considered to be at the pinnacle of his many notable plays, which include “Beyond the Horizon (1920), Anna Christie (1922), Strange Interlude (1928), Ah! Wilderness(1933), and The Iceman Cometh (1946).” Yet, it’s rare to see an intimate Los Angeles theater take on an O’Neill play.
Burning with irreconcilable passions and conflicting dreams, this seldom produced work from O’Neill is set in a tawdry tavern near Boston on the eve of Andrew Jackson’s election. Irishman Con Melody drowns memories of his former greatness as a soldier and aristocrat in a dangerous stew of alcohol and regret, while his headstrong daughter struggles to win a better future for herself and her long-suffering mother. The play, which the New York Times dubbed “electric,” unleashes volcanic forces of inner conflict and emotion in an unexpected climax.
O’Neill is perhaps best known for his experimental and emotional examinations of human society, with themes so relevant today. “A Touch of the Poet” sometimes compared to the “giving up on pipe dreams” theme in “The Iceman Cometh,” hits on narcissism, classism, sexism, alcoholism, deciphering illusions and truth, and additionally the need for humans to distract themselves from the daily disappointments in life. For the 1978 revival, with Jason Robards playing Con Melody, T.E. Kalem wrote about “the fierce tension at the heart of [O’Neill’s] dramatic imagination,” we find in this play as the theme that “a life of illusions is unpardonable but that life without illusions is unbearable.”
This depth of psychological examination in characters was seldom broached, and purposely evaded, in early 20th century American entertainment. However, O’Neill brought it to light in the American consciousness, and between 1920 and 1943 he completed 20 full-length plays, and numerous shorter ones. After Shakespeare and Shaw, Eugene O’Neill became the most widely translated and produced dramatist in the 20th century. But, he often opined that audiences did not recognize “the transfiguring nobility of tragedy in as near the Greek sense as one can grasp it, in seemingly the most ignoble, debased lives.”
Robert Bailey directs the Pacific Resident Theatre production of “A Touch of the Poet,” in Venice, California. With a commitment to rediscover the rarely performed classics, PRT is a multi-award winning artistic ensemble influenced by societal relevance, past, present and future.
“A Touch of the Poet”focuses on the son of an Irish “sheeben” keeper and a proud, educated military officer and the havoc he causes around him. Originally intended to be part of the series, “A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed,” which was to follow the corruption of the American soul by materialism over the centuries. The series was never finished, and sadly, O’Neill did not live to see the first production of “A Touch of the Poet.”
Director Robert Bailey shares some insight as to why this production is being produced now in Los Angeles.
Ester: Why do you think it’s important for audiences to see this play?
Robert: The play is rarely revived, and yet it is a major late-career effort from a master playwright. All the themes that inform his better-known works are present: Illusion vs. truth, the weight of the past, the fragility of personal ego, and the damage that we inflict on our families. O’Neill wanted this to be part of a huge cycle of plays about the Irish in America, “A Touch of the Poet” has a great deal to say about assimilation and class-consciousness in America and the perennial moral and social dilemmas posed by each wave of immigration.
Ester: Have you seen the play done before? When/where? How did it affect you?
Robert: I had never seen a production of the play, and I do not think I am alone among theatre people in this regard. It is a neglected masterpiece. When I first read it, I was astonished by its scope, originality and dramatic power, and I became determined to work on it.
Ester: What is the most challenging part of directing this play?
Robert: The principal challenge was making certain that the actors had ample time and preparation to deliver the performances, which they so clearly had the talent and range for accomplishing. The scenes are long, complex and emotionally taxing. My job was to keep bringing the individual scenes into focus so that the character’s motivations, and dramatic stakes, could achieve the proper level of intensity and build inevitably to the play’s climactic moments.
Ester: What do you love most about Eugene O’Neill’s work
Robert: He burrows so deeply and fearlessly into the labyrinth of desires, the dreams and conflicts that exist within each of his characters. The actor Brian Dennehy once said in an interview with Charlie Rose that O’Neill is “the deepest diver” among playwrights, and I think that sums up his eternal fascination among directors and actors. Our lead actor Matt McKenzie calls it “big theatre.” It takes all of your resources to bring a play like this to fruition, and still you feel you could go further without ever truly reaching the end of the destination O’Neill has set for you.
The cast includes John Dittrick, Brendan Farrell, Julia Fletcher, Anthony Foux, Ron Geren, August Grahn, Dennis Madden, Julia McIlvaine, Matt McKenzie, and Dalia Vosylius
A Touch of the Poet runs at 8pm Thursdays – Saturdays, and at 3pm on Sundays through December 18, 2016 (No performances November 24 – 27 during Thanksgiving weekend). Pacific Resident Theatre is located at 703 Venice Blvd. in Venice, CA 90291. Tickets are $25 – $30 and can be purchased online at here at Pacific Resident Theatre or by calling (310) 822-8392.