Playwright: Eugene O'Neill. At: Seanachaí Theatre Company at the Irish-American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Ave. Tickets: 866-811-4111; www.seanachai.org; $24-$28. Runs through: April 29
There's the balcony courtship in Romeo and Juliet, and Cyrano de Bergerac, but Western theater's most difficult love scene is the one taking up nearly the entire second half of this final chapter in Eugene O'Neill's saga of the doomed Tyrone family. Not only are its lovers deliberately deceiving one another from the beginning (and themselves, too, albeit less deliberately)their risk is not concerned simply with matters of the heart, you see, but with those of money, property and filial loyalty. Add in the various stages of intoxication associated with seasoned alcoholics versus novice tipplers, and that's a heavy load of subtext for two solitary actors to convey at full intensity for an hour or more.
O'Neill being U.S. theater's foremost playwright, all worthy theater companies must, sooner or later, grapple with the challenges of his richly-textured dramas. Less ambitious troupes tend toward his communal narratives (e.g. Long Day's Journey Into Night, or The Hairy Ape), rather than rely on the stamina of a single powerhouse duo. The Seanachaí ensemble has never flinched in its exploration of the Irish experience, however, and here are three reasons for its emerging victorious once again:
1) The production is performed in a small room, reducing the physical distance between actor and actor, as well as actor and audience, to an intimacy maximizing the emotional impact. The restricted movement mandated by the likewise small stage also abbreviates the running time to a comfortable two and a half hours with one intermission.
2) Director Kevin Theis rejects conventional typecasting, selecting the sturdy Steve Pickering for the role of the dissipated Jamie Tyrone, and the statuesque Carolyn Klein to be the defiant Josie Hogan. Together, they navigate O'Neill's flowery prose and stilted period-slang ("You're the goods, kid!") to forge a cliche-free portrait of lost souls whose proud veneer of courage renders their vulnerability the more moving for its silence.
3) The tightly integrated technical team has created, in microcosm, a museum-grade example of early 20th-century scenic naturalism, ranging from a nowadays rarely-seen painted drop to Julian Pike's achingly subtle Connecticut sunrise. (Watch Klein sharpen an ax with a hand-held whetstone for a lesson in rural life before the invention of electrical tools.)