If "A Touch of the Poet" stands a notch below Eugene O'Neill's masterworks, the penetrating production at A Noise Within redresses the balance. This florid study of Irish immigrant pride run amok in 1828 Boston receives a rigorous, engrossing revival that favors strengths over inequities.
Posthumously produced on Broadway in 1958, "A Touch of the Poet" is one of two surviving plays in O'Neill's 11-play cycle on the corrupting perils of American materialism ("More Stately Mansions" is the other). It follows Cornelius Melody (Geoff Elliott), aptly nicknamed Con, a former major in the British army who is now an alcoholic poseur with a failed tavern (well designed by Michael Smith). Nora (Deborah Strang), his downtrodden wife, coddles Con's grandiose delusions, an object of scorn for rebellious daughter Sara (Brigetta Kelly).
An unseen fourth principal -- the wealthy young Yankee upon whom Sara pins her hopes -- pivots the narrative against this incendiary trio. The device, like O'Neill's loping reveries and measured exposition, can tax modern tastes. Yet director Michael Murray uses the heightened naturalism to send theatrical blood coursing across the thrust stage. Ron Wyand's sound design and Laura Karpman's uilleann-pipe compositions are as evocative as Ken Booth's understated lights and Soojin Lee's period costumes are authentic.
Murray keeps the emotional stakes at knife's edge. Elliott, Strang and Kelly are superbly impassioned as the fractious family at the heart of this minor classic. The Melodys seem related, with similar profiles and telling variations of accent (courtesy of dialect coach Linda Brennan), and the actors inhabit them with abandon.
Elliott plays each Byronic flourish and sodden rage to the hilt, his Con equal parts Kevin Kline, Corin Redgrave and a loaded musket. Wholly the figure of wrecked distinction that O'Neill requests, Elliott descends by bold, convincing stages in a great performance.
The cameo-faced Kelly reflects his bravura turn with delicate pyrotechnics of her own as Sara, every mercurial inch her mother's child and her father's daughter. Strang, always welcome and ideally cast, downplays the histrionics to illuminate Nora's inchoate anguish and farm-bred humor.
Their colleagues rally round them with disciplined spontaneity. Steve Rockwell as fellow officer Jamie and the cronies of Tim Venable, Steve Humphreys and David Stifel find the contempt beneath their Abbey Theatre twinkle. Michael Matthys gives barkeep Mickeyeasy sass, while Jill Hill and Mitch Edmonds turn their small but key roles into master classes on projecting character with economy.
Even middle-drawer O'Neill can make most playwrights seem anemic by comparison. Such vitality abounds in this vibrant "Poet."
'A Touch of the Poet'
Where: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale
When: In repertory; check www.anoisewithin.org for details
Ends: Dec. 3
Price: $34 to $38
Contact: (818) 240-0910, Ext.1
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes