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BWW Review: O'Neill's A TOUCH OF THE POET Reveals Volcanic Forces Stewing in an Irish Tavern in 1828

This seems to be the time for plays about Irish families trying to live out their dreams in a world holding them back, given THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENAN at the Mark Taper Forum and now Eugene O'Neill's rarely produced A TOUCH OF THE POET at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, a group celebrating its 30th Anniversary this year and known for their unparalleled flair for re-imagining the classics.

Eugene O'Neill is the only American playwright ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature and he is a four-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. Between 1920 and 1943, he completed 20 long plays, with several of them double and triple length. And unfortunately, the current Pacific Resident production comes in at over 3 hours, a trying time for a play with such dramatic verbiage that it is necessary to pay full attention throughout since O'Neill's brilliant writing is both incredibly introspective yet often very repetitive. So be sure not to eat a huge meal before attending so the urge to fall asleep does not overtake you.

Burning with the dramatic fire of irreconcilable passions and conflicting dreams, A TOUCH OF THE POET is set in a tawdry tavern near Boston on the eve of Andrew Jackson's 1828 election. The owner, 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 Sara struggles to win a better future for herself and her long-suffering mother whose accommodating nature keeps her subservient to her husband's volcanic moods.

As directed by Robert Bailey, all the actors have their moment to shine in the spotlight, especially Matt McKenzie who commands the stage in a tour-de-force performance as Major Con Melody, a man whose rage explodes at everyone the more he drinks, believing as he does that whiskey can raise the dead back to life. And when he struts onstage dressed in his British Army Officer's red coat, flirting with any woman who walks into the tavern (including Dalia Vosylius as Deborah Harford, the upper class mother of his daughter's intended fiancé) or speaking in endearing terms about his belovEd White mare, the stage is set for volcanic forces to ignite in a thrilling, unexpected unraveling of his life.

Julia McIlvaine portrays his frustrated daughter Sara Melody, stuck working as the tavern waitress so her mother Nora (Julia Fletcher) at least has help taking care of the place and the drunken inhabitants who never seem to leave. Sara is desperate to escape, hoping the wealthy and well-bred "Yankee" Simon who rents a room upstairs has fallen in love with her and will propose marriage, even against his parents' wishes. When her father gets wind of this, he advises his daughter to bed the young man to convince him of her worthiness to become a high society lady, hopefully due to trapping him with an unplanned pregnancy. Of course, he wishes his daughter well, but his drunken nonsense and overblown ego get in his way every time he opens his mouth.

An eclectic mix of tavern dwellers act as both friends and bitter enemies of Con Melody, including Dennis Madden as the bearded Patch Riley who carries a set of old bagpipes around with him as a giant bota bag in which he carries his whiskey, drinking it through a straw. Other standouts include bartender Mickey Maloy (John Dittrick) seems to be Con's preferred husband for Sara to keep her working in the tavern, and Jamie Cregan (handsome Brendan Farrell), a former soldier who knows his friend Con from his glory days and now spends his time drinking as long as the whiskey is flowing.

Adding authenticity to the production are period and class perfect costumes designed by Audrey Eisner and Sarah Zinsser. You certainly know when Anthony Foux walks in as the well-dressed Harford attorney Nicholas Gadsby that he is not there to sit down and drink with the boys in their tattered and torn, working class clothes.

This is a production for serious theatergoers who understand the importance of O'Neill's plays since through his efforts, American theatre grew up during the 1920s, developing into a cultural medium that could take its place with the best in American fiction, painting, and music. And by his inspiration to other serious dramatists, O'Neill set the pace for the blossoming of serious Broadway theatre in the early 20th Century.

A TOUCH OF THE POET runs at 8pm Thursdays - Saturdays, and at 3pm on Sundays through December 18, 2016 and resumes after the holiday break from Jan 5th - 29th at the same times. Pacific Resident Theatre is located at 703 Venice Blvd. in Venice, CA 90291. Tickets are $25 - $30 and can be purchased online at or by calling (310) 822-8392.

Photos by Vitor Martins

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