In the first of two productions visiting the National Theatre from the Royal & Derngate Northampton, Eugene O’Neill paints a bleak portrait of the consequences of ignoring your destiny.
The sun rises beautifully in Sara Perks simple, effective set. A bare tree, its branches twisted by the wind, sits on a cliff top, stark against the vivid red/blue sky. It is here where Rob Mayo, the younger of two brothers, comes to dream about what could be over the horizon, both physically and metaphorically. He has secured a job as a ship’s mate which will soon take him away from the family farm and over that horizon where a life of adventure and excitement awaits. It all seems whimsy to brother Andy, who feels most comfortable labouring on the farm he will one day take over from their father. The ideals, motives and desires of the two brothers are in complete contrast, and their futures seem secured to opposite paths.
But an inadvertent interception by their childhood friend Ruth, a declaration of love and some rash decision-making mean each of them takes the other’s path; Rob chooses to stay at home and work on the farm with Ruth, while the distraught Andy takes to the high seas.
Did they get the wrong lives or is it just that the grass is always greener? That is the question that O’Neill explores during the subsequent scenes, as we see the consequences of that fate-twisting moment on each brother and the woman caught in the middle. Among a consistently fine cast each of the trio shows the emotional impact of that decision: Michael Malarky’s Rob is a passionate, whimsical man who momentarily forgot his dreams for love and lives in regret and envy from then on; Michael Thomson’s commonsensical Andy makes the best of his situation but the magic of his adventures is lost on him; Liz White, as Ruth, shows the heartbreak of first love turning to nightmare as she grapples with the reality of her girlish declaration.
Being an O’Neill play, heartbreak and tragedy are not painted over with a happy ending, and by Act Three Perks’s beautiful sun has set, leaving only darkness over the Mayo farm. Director Laurie Sansom has movingly realised this tragic picture of missed opportunity and regret. It makes you want to run for the hills while you’ve got the chance.