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Theatre

Eugene O'Neill's Hughie a lesson in character study

Posted by Keith Bennie / February 24, 2012

Hughie O'NeilEugene O'Neill left a lasting impression on American theatre of the 20th Century. This winter, he's making a mark on Toronto stages with two productions currently running — Long Day's Journey into Night at Soulpepper and Hughie at The Theatre Centre.

The former is one of O'Neill's most-lauded full-length plays, while the latter is a tidy 45 minute one-act offering. Hughie is a curious piece. There are strong moments propelled by the performances from the two actors, but the interjection of surtitles, while initially promising, doesn't end up making a strong impression.

While O'Neill's profile of a character under the microscope is expertly constructed, today the play feels a little slow moving.

Erie (Michael Kash), the play's fast talker, returns to his hotel home drunk and begins to size up Hughie's new replacement, Charlie (Dean Ifill). What follows is a long-form eulogy of sorts in which Erie describes his relationship to the recently deceased hotel clerk. Charlie, whose intermittent thoughts are projected above the action, considers life outside the hotel and what life behind the desk might entail.

The show is introduced by two musicians, Michael Sereny on piano and Morgan Gardner on trumpet, who play the type of tunes that help set the mood. Director David Ferry takes a decidedly actor's approach to the play, showcasing the talents of the two performers.

The stand out is Kash who hits the highs and lows of Erie's ramblings. In driving the story closer and closer to the reality of Erie's relationship with Hughie, not just a lucky charm but a person on which he depended, Kash delivers us to the lonely heart of O'Neill's play.

The surtitles that provide a window into Charlie's thoughts prove quite funny. Beyond comedic potential, however, the thoughts tend to interrupt the pace of Erie's meanderings. Ifill's Charlie is a slow-moving daydreamer, an interpretation that paradoxically brings some energy to the script.

While over the course of a longer piece, where the playwright's character studies can blossom into a well-rounded drama, it inevitably feels like something's missing from a presentation of Hughie as a stand-alone play.

While it may just stem from a more modern sensibility to value action over a thorough character study, one can still appreciate Kash's performance in this piece.

Hughie, written by Eugene O'Neill and directed by David Ferry, runs at The Theatre Centre until March 3. On February 26 at 7:00pm there will be a benefit performance with all proceeds going to Anaphylaxis Canada.

Hughie photo courtesy of Alley Theatre Workshop

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