Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Beyond the Horizon," seldom seen classic at Ensemble

Each year, Ensemble Theatre selects a classic play to be part of their season offerings.  Last year it was “The Iceman Cometh,” which was recognized by the Cleveland Critics Circle for Superior Achievement for a Non-Musical Production.  This year’s choice is Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize winning, “Beyond the Horizon,” the author’s first full-length work.

A review of the first staging of “Beyond the Horizon” called the play “the closest approach any native author has yet made to the great American play.”  O’Neill’s epic gave birth to the play category of “new American tragedy.” 

Ironically, the playwright used a take-off on the romantic story line to achieve his goal.  It was probably the formulaic romantic story line that led an opening night reviewer to write, "There can be no question that it is a work of uncommon merit and definite ability, distinguished by general superiority from the great bulk of contemporaneous productions. However, the play ‘is not quite a masterpiece.’”

The play centers on a slowly evolving portrait of the Mayo family.  Andrew and Robert are bound by brotherly love, but are totally different.  One is a pragmatist, the other a dreamer.   The brothers fall in love with the same girl.  Both wind up sacrificing what they really want out of life in order to do what they think may be better for the other, and, in the end, both lose out. 

“Beyond the Horizon” is a play about dreams.  Every character has clearly etched desires.  The father, James, wants a bigger farm with his older son accomplishing his vision.  Ruth yearns to have a husband.  Robert and Andy have opposite dreams.  Andrew wants to accomplish his father’s goal.  Robert, a poet and reader, envisions himself living out his romantic dreams of going “beyond the horizon,” going to “the far places of the world that beckon alluringly.” 

The script effectively walks the fine line between melodrama and prescription romantic saga.  In lesser hands the plot probably would have strayed from reality and into romantic fantasy.  But, fortunately, O’Neill is too proficient a writer to allow for that.

The script follows the format of a three-act play, so popular in the early to mid-twentieth century.  It makes for a long, over two-hour sit.

Ensemble’s production, under the direction of Celeste Consentino, develops the playwright’s intentions.  The pacing is languid, maybe a little too languid in places.  Tensions don’t always build to their climax. The acting mainly stays on the surface, actors not digging deeply beneath the surface level of the thoughts and feelings of their characters, a digging that often unearths deep pain and emotional feelings that aids the performer to illuminate the person they are portraying.

James Rankin generally gives a nice poetic dreamer quality to Robert.  His closing scenes are properly wrought with pain and the letting go of any hope for the life he dreamed he’d live.

Keith Stevens, as the hard working Andrew, develops a nice contrast to his escapist brother.  Robert Hawkes clearly creates a rough, determined father.

The technical aspects are unnerving.  Large electronic projections of fields and a house interior visually overwhelm in the small Ensemble venue.  The pictures of Mary, the young daughter, many times larger than an actual child, with an overpowering voice, makes the youngster surreal.  That might have been fine for horror movie,  but this is a realistic play.

Capsule judgment:  “Beyond The Horizon” is a Eugene O’Neill classic which gets few stagings.  The Ensemble production, in general, allows us to experience the beautiful writing of a master playwright. Ensemble is to be praised for continuing in its task to help keep the classics alive by producing this and other epic plays.

“Beyond The Horizon” runs Fridays and Saturdays (8 PM) and Sundays (2 PM) through May 18, 2013, at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the Coventry Building, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

To read the views of other Cleveland area theatre reviewers go to: