Sunday, May 4, 2014

Beyond the Horizon, Ensemble Theatre

(James Rankin as Robert and Emily Pucell as Ruth in a fleeting moment of happiness)

One of the most accurate yet useless aphorisms ever uttered is: “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.” As we all know from experience, that rubric is often true, but what’s the takeaway? To stop wishing?

Three characters in Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon see their wishes come true, only to fall into regret and sadness. This play, O’Neill’s first Pulitzer Prize winner, shows its age with frequently clunky dialogue. But there is heat and passion at work here, and the Ensemble Theatre cast under the skillful direction of Celeste Cosentino mostly succeeds in bringing it to life.

Two grown brothers, Robert and Andy, are kicking around the family’s Massachusetts farm under the watchful eyes of dad James and mom Kate. The capable Andy is a man seemingly born to farm life while Robert is a poet and dreamer, reading verses and dreaming of traveling to far off places.

But when longtime family friend and neighbor Ruth Atkins reveals her love for Robert, he scotches his imminent plans to set sail and decides he’ll settle down on the farm and raise a family. This sends Robert, who is also in love with Ruth, reeling onto the ship that Robert was going to board, claiming he always wanted to see the world.

Of course, these new-found wishes soon turn to ashes in the mordant hands of a playwright who has never seen a hope he couldn’t quickly and thoroughly dash to pieces.

Most of the actors negotiate this three-act mudslide into misery with adeptness. Valerie Young registers mother Kate’s concern and helplessness and Robert Hawkes, in the too-brief role of dad James, sparks fire when he confronts Andy about abandoning the farm.

Emily Pucell as Ruth deconstructs her character nicely from a young gal plump with promise to a gray shadow of her former self. Discovering that Robert isn’t up to the task of running a farm, she anticipates Andy’s arrival from the seas like Harry Hope and the boys wait for savior Hickey in The Iceman Cometh.

Smaller roles are handled well, particularly quirky Stephen Vasse-Hansell as Captain Scott, the skipper of the ship that Andy joins. And Mary Alice Beck deftly etches the wizened soul of Ruth’s snarky, wheelchair-bound mother.

The two brothers, of course, are the heart of the play. On one hand, James Rankin creates a fascinating Robert—you can sense the man’s inherent weakness from his first moments on stage. And Rankin adds more layers to this portrait of a man who is mugged by his own perceived happiness.

But Keith E. Stevens never quite gets a firm hold on Andy. Too often relying on a chuckling delivery that raises one big question (What exactly is so funny?), he rushes many beats and doesn’t craft a solid presence for Rankin’s Robert to push against.

Still, this is a play you’re not likely to see again anytime soon. Plus, it features some truly handsome projections designed by Ian Hinz and enough of O’Neill’s signature moments of cosmic tragedy to satisfy even the most morose among us.

Beyond the Horizon
Through May 18 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.

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