All you've been longing for in the theater is a good old well-constructed play, with some fine old masterful acting, and perhaps a touch of poetry in the lines and the way they are spoken. Well, you have it now, at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, and it's not enough, after all.
Jason Robards and Geraldine Fitzgerald in Eugene O'Neill's "A Touch of the Poet" directed by Jose Quintero must be the quintessential O'Neill evening. All you could ever ask for in the way of stylish and drunken self-delusion in an Irish immigrant male is there, along with the most long-suffering, noble, nuturing Irish immigrant female on stage, let alone on earth.
The O'Neill premise is that there is a virtue poetry of the soul, however illusory it may be, which redeems the human lot from its prosiac condition. His hero has cast reality aside to hang on to the swaggering, heroic role of a landed gentleman and military officer, which he held briefly many years previously. While he is scorned by his practical daughter, as being almost insanely inappropriate to their modest life as American innkeepers, she can bear even less his taking a literal approach to their lot. And for herself, she chooses a life like her mother's, as the hard-working supporter of an impractical dreamer.
The O'Neill spirit is given such forceful support in this production that among them all they have turned the half-poet into a total monster. His poetic illusion has nothing to do with honor any longer, it's the offensive pretension of a frustrated social climber. It is employed not to elevate the spirit from an ugly life, but as a weapon for the avoidance of labor and the persecution of those who perform it.
Heaven knows that Eugene O'Neill deserves the credit for bringing us the dreamer who uses his disillusionment as an excuse for idleness, alcoholism and the abuse of women. But by the time Robards has seconded him by making the character a tongue-loller who is disgusting even in his dream role; Fitzgerald has given him a wife so submissive that she doesn't seem to have enough strength even to be supportive; and Kathryn Walker creates a daughter who reels wildly between scorn and sottiness, O'Neill has been O'Neill-ized to the n th degree.
Certainly this is forceful acting, legitimately derived from a strong play. It's just that it all adds up to a lot of heavy pounding, and poetry requires an occasional light touch.