Two early plays by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, first seen last October at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, are more than a welcome addition to the National’s repertoire: fascinating in themselves, they amount to a route map of modern American drama.
O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon, the playwright’s first big success in 1920, shows two brothers, one a doomed poet, the other an ambitious farmer, divided in love for the same woman and then by death.
Williams’ unknown 1937 Spring Storm (this is its European premiere) charts a similar three-way romantic pull between the impulsive Heavenly Critchfield, a muscular river man and an Oxford-educated son of the gentry.
All the major themes are here: the claims of the land, the new opportunities in city and business life, the destructive cradle of the family, the pleasures of booze and adventure, the liberating forces of learning and self-expression.
And yet both playwrights see the end in their beginnings, the tragedy of misdirected love, the wearing effects of poverty, the disappointment of unfulfilled hopes. When O’Neill’s father saw Beyond the Horizon he asked him, “What are you trying to do, send them home to commit suicide?”
He was referring to the audience, not the characters, whom director Laurie Sansom places in stark silhouette by a gnarled old tree on the Connecticut farm in the O’Neill, and around a storm-tossed promontory, littered with junk and broken furniture, in the Williams.
These tragic, thoughtful figures in a landscape cry out across the century and touch us to the heart. Michael Thomson and striking newcomer Michael Malarkey play, respectively, the sons of soil and the soul, while Liz White is truly outstanding as both the worn down farmer’s wife, her wide-eyed optimism gradually erased with drudgery, and as the divine Heavenly, flitting between men like a summer butterfly before joining the spinsters on the porch; White is a deeply affecting and attractive actress.
The O’Neill is underpinned by plangent musical hints of “Shenandoah” while the Williams – both plays are simply and inventively designed by Sara Perks and beautifully lit by Chris Davey – sighs with the heat of a summer afternoon before the storm.
And while the O’Neill is a beautifully controlled, classical narrative, the Williams sprawls engagingly all over the place like a baby faun, with some really wonderful tangy scenes of social realism, pregnant conversations and filigree, black–laced comedy. The bill is both a collector’s item and a genuine treat; and all power to the Northampton theatres.