"The Hairy Ape": Man or beast?

A socialite’s hostile reaction shakes the self-image of a proud stoker in The Spot's production

Special to The TribuneJune 19, 2013 

A powerful production of Eugene O’Neill’s American tragedy, “The Hairy Ape,” is a rare opportunity to see this gritty classic. Jake Liam McGuire directs and stars in the dramatic tale of Yank, a man floundering in his search for identity in the chasm that divides the rich from the poor in New York in 1922.

The story begins in the bowels of a cruise ship, where the firemen stoke the furnaces that power the ship. Their faces and clothes are black with soot and smoke, with the sound of the ship’s engine in the background as they drink and talk.

Paddy, an Irishman (Nick Homick), longs for the days of sailing ships — sunshine and fresh air, the antithesis of where they are now. Long (Nik Johnson) is feeling oppressed as he expounds socialist ideals, but both men are ridiculed by Yank, who has a proud self-image of what he does. He sees himself as a vital force. He is what powers the ship.

“I start something and the world moves,” he says.

But above, on deck, is a pretty socialite wearing a flowing white dress, and she is about to change his life. Ellen Morgan Eves, played by Mildred Douglas, is the daughter of the president of the powerful steel trust, which owns the boat. With her aunt as chaperone, she is making a halfhearted effort to “see how the other half lives.” She asks the ship’s engineer (Sean Peters), whom she describes as “an oaf, but a handsome, virile oaf” to take her down below to see the men who power the engines.

As they open the door to the hold, she and Yank come face to face, and she is horrified, calling him a “filthy beast.”

When they are gone, Yank is bewildered by her reaction, and as the men discuss it, they turn her description of Yank into “hairy ape,” which sticks in his mind.

In the second act, Yank is on shore in Manhattan, determined to avenge the damage done to his self-image. Out of his element, he loses his identity and tries to find it again, turned away at every attempt.

McGuire is terrific as Yank, boasting and ranting in the beginning, becoming more and more sympathetic as he journeys toward tragedy. All of the acting is good, and the sets are amazing. The play was originally one act, but scene changes have required this production to have an intermission as the dark, dreary hold of the ship, with its glowing furnaces, gives way to fashionable Fifth Avenue, then to jail, on to the office of a labor organization, and finally to a zoo. Tim Seawell is stage manager and technical director.

Some of Eugene O’Neill’s plays have become classics, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Strange Interlude” and “Desire Under the Elms,” and later, “The Iceman Cometh.”

“The Hairy Ape” is a shorter, earlier play, and the theme of personal search and tragedy is more succinct. This is a sociopolitical play of its time, when the captains of industry were getting rich and the workers who fueled their rise were left behind. The dialogue is so rich and meaningful that it made me want to read the script of the play to capture all of the observations and nuances that go by quickly as the playwright explores both human nature and social history. The Spot production captures its essence.

IF YOU GO

"The Hairy Ape"
8 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday
The Spot, 116 W. Branch St., Arroyo Grande
$20, $15 for students and seniors
474-5711 or http://thespotag.com

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