Attempting to illuminate the nature of Eugene O’Neill’s “immense, hardpressed talent” in a 1958 essay, Tynan punted and quoted another critic. “What moved us was the cost to the dramatist of what he handled,” wrote Stark Young in 1926.
Whatever Young was talking about, it wasn’t what moved Kathleen Akerley to tackle Beyond the Horizon for the American Century Theater, Northern Virgina’s home for problem plays. While the 1920 brothers-divided saga snagged O’Neill the first of his Pulitzers for drama, it’s rough on actors and directors. There are riddles of geography to be figured out—we’re on a farm from which you can see the ocean—and a two-year-old girl with lines. Persuading the horses O’Neill wanted (not present) to take direction would surely be easier.
Sudsy and somber, the play tells of the brothers Mayo and the woman they both loved. Andrew (Felipe Cabezas) is the sturdy, skillful man of the soil who cheerfully expects to inherit the family farm from his paw; Robert (Joshua Drew) is the fey and frail dreamer, subject to mockery for his incessant reading. Like Luke Skywalker before—er, after—him, he believes he’s cut out for bigger things than farm life, and he plans to accompany his uncle on a three-year voyage by sea. When he unexpectedly declares his love for Ruth on the eve of his departure, the brothers’ previously charted destinies are upended with—spoiler!—tragic consequences.
It’s the character of Ruth, O’Neill’s “healthy, blonde, out-of-door girl,” who seems to have spurred Akerley to try to Rubik’s-cube this thing into contemporary currency. “I cannot, as a director, devote three acts to the theme ‘artist crushed by harridan,’” Akerley writes in the program. I oughtn’t disclose the inventive way she’s gone about making Ruth’s fishwifeyness in Acts Two and Three the product of the dread poet Robert’s perception rather than objective authorial law. Let it suffice to say she tips her hat to the filmmakers Luis Buñuel and Todd Solondz, and it works. Her casting of a puppet as the two-year-old Mary doesn’t break the spell any more than the presence of a real, speaking child would, though there’s a curious moment at the end of Act Two when Robert acknowledges Mary’s puppeteer (Ashley Demain), who’d been invisible up until then.
Cabezas and Drew don’t handle O’Neill’s famously orotund dialogue with quite the same ease, but they share an earnestness and commitment that makes them easy to watch. And “earnest” and “committed” are watchwords for O’Neill. He’d write better plays later, but for all Horizon’s anachronistic qualities, the core of this thing has a pleasing heft and even relevance: Feeling haunted by choices we made when we were 20 never goes out of style.