For most of its recent history, Eclipse Theatre Company has been defined by its intimacy. And so has director Lou Contey, who made his reputation long ago at the Shattered Globe's tiny old space on Halsted Street. But in tandem with the start of its 2012 Eugene O'Neill season (Eclipse dedicates an entire season to one playwright), Eclipse has now moved to a larger space at the re-energized Athenaeum Theatre in Lakeview.
The third-floor studio is no barn — it seats almost 100 — but it's enough to change the spatial dynamic and, in this instance, not for the better.
The main problem with Contey's new production of O'Neill's "Beyond the Horizon," the 1920 drama wherein two brothers make fraught and flawed life choices after the same woman comes between them, is that it feels like a production in search of an overarching idea.
It's not that Contey or Eclipse are obliged to provide the same level of conceptual enterprise as was the case at the Goodman's Theatre's O'Neill Festival. On the contrary, "Beyond the Horizon," a play that offers a horrifically arresting contrast between its first and second acts, in which hopeful young lovers morph into embittered people entrapped by a miserable marriage, is plenty powerful when done straight. Contey clearly has an understanding of the text, and the three main actors here, John Wehrman (who plays Robert Mayo), Nathaniel Swift (as Robert's weaker brother, Andrew) and Emily Shain (who plays the Ruth they both love, and not just in the biblical sense) are all very decent performers, albeit not ideally cast.
There are some strong individual moments, such as when Shain's Ruth richly realizes that the dreamy Robert, not just the practical but stubborn farmer Andrew, is in her dangerous thrall. The metaphors in this play are so potent that "Beyond the Horizon" easily transports one well beyond its setting of a Massachusetts farm at the turn of the last century to a vicarious understanding of the anguish of missed chances. It offers a sober picture of the way that love lost can't easily turn around, how brothers must always seem to dance between love and rivalry, how running away is so appealing until you actually run somewhere, and how helping our loved ones when they are in trouble often means helping them too late. This production is strong enough to put all of that in your head, constantly, so it's by no means a failure.
Still, you don't feel like you see the dramatic, fatal contrast between these brothers with which this play is so consumed, nor does the production make enough use of its environment to enrich the psychological themes. The energy is often lurching when one wishes it were relentless. And the scenes of real honestly intersect too often with moments that feel uncertain or untrue.
In general, the passion and power of the play just does not emerge with enough intensity; the production, simply put, never goes far enough to roar through the clutter and unleash the requisite pain.
There's no reason Eclipse can't deliver O'Neill in this way in this space — and that kind of direct communication has long been this company's strength — it just requires a crucial new way of thinking and doing.
When: Through April 22
Where: Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $28 at 773-935-6860 or eclipsetheatre.com