A Touch of the Poet
Reviewed by Terry Morgan
Pacific Resident Theatre
Through December 18th.
Dramatically, antiheroes are more interesting to write about and portray than standard heroes because they combine the most compelling aspects of both hero and villain. Eugene O’Neill knew this well, and populated his plays with a parade of sympathetic ne’er-do-wells, from Jamie in Long Day’s Journey into Night to the entire cast of The Iceman Cometh. Cornelius Melody in A Touch of the Poet extends this tradition; he’s mostly — but not entirely — a bastard, and the theme of pride versus love holds up well. The current production of Poet at Pacific Resident Theatre benefits from a couple of lovely nuanced performances, but unfortunately it features one lead performance that doesn’t entirely convince.
In 1828 Boston, Cornelius Melody (Matt McKenzie) owns a small tavern. Convinced he is aristocracy and a war hero, he holds himself above the locals and even his own family, spending money they desperately need on a thoroughbred horse that bolsters his self-image. His wife Nora (Julia Fletcher) loves him in spite of himself, but daughter Sara (Julia McIlvaine) loathes his selfishness and can’t wait to get away. Her plan to escape involves getting a sick young lodger to marry her, but Cornelius may step in to crush her dreams.
McIlvaine does beautiful work as the conflicted Sara; she’s impressively strong while defending her mother and attacking her father, yet wonderfully vulnerable and radiant as she ultimately surrenders herself to her love. Fletcher is also fantastic as the endlessly forgiving Nora, and manages to make what could be a hard-to-believe character seem both strong and wise. McKenzie, however, doesn’t completely connect with his role, and comes off as a bit stiff and uncomfortable when Cornelius should be entirely comfortable in his delusions. John Dittrick and Dalia Vosylus are very good in smaller roles.
Director Robert Bailey uses the small theatre space well, making Dan Volonte’s simple yet effective set seem like a working tavern. In particular, the scenes between McIlvaine and Fletcher work seamlessly, especially a conversation wherein Sara is breathless with newfound joy and Nora is dumbstruck with fear, and we see how their bond remains strong even in extreme circumstances.
This is not a perfect production, but there is still a lot to appreciate in PRT’s A Touch of the Poet.
Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.- Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m.; through Dec. 18. www.pacificresidenttheatre.com. Running time: three hours with an intermission