When the lights go up, you feel as if you've been dropped into a panel from the mural "America Today" by Thomas Hart Benton. Bare-chested men are drinking beer and yelling taunts at each other in the belly of an ocean liner, where they've taken a break from shoveling coal into the ship's engine. And among these drunken louts, one man stands apart, clearly not sure if he belongs there. Or anywhere.
Thus begins The Hairy Ape, the expressionist play by Eugene O'Neill written in 1922 that is now being given a vital and imaginative production at Ensemble Theatre. This none-too-subtle story is about men trapped in the bowels of the 20th century's burgeoning industrialism, and the debating points are established quickly in this 90-minute piece.
Among the Neanderthals who are yelling and cursing, a fireman named Long (James Rankin) quotes the bible and claims that they are all wage slaves. His opinion is amplified by Paddy (Allen Branstein), who rhapsodizes about times past when shipmates worked in the fresh air under sail, "... scudding south again with the power of the Trade Wind, driving her on steady through the nights and the days."
O'Neill's evocative words paint a lovely picture, but soon those reveries are confronted by the man apart, the alpha male in this pack named Yank, who is just fine with things as they are. Yank doesn't see himself as a slave, but as the driving force behind the power of a new world. As he says about Paddy in his Brooklyn-accented working-man dialect, "He can't breathe and swallow coal dust, but I kin, see? Dat's fresh air for me! ... I'm at de bottom, get me! Dere ain't nothin' foither. I'm de end! I'm de start! I start somep'n and de woild moves!"
As you can tell, this is a script rife with question marks and exclamation points, but thanks to the precisely modulated, gloriously theatrical direction by Ian Wolfgang Hinz, it never seems oppressive. Instead, the actors give shape and substance to O'Neill's foaming rants, showing how Yank struggles to find a place for himself, somewhere between the animal that others see him as and the human being he aspires to be.
This comes into clear focus when Mildred, the wealthy and adventurous daughter of the shipping magnate, decides to escape from the stultifying protection of her aunt and visit the stokehold where these men sweat and yell. But when she encounters Yank, she declares that he is a "hairy ape" and nearly faints before being helped off the ship.
Clearly, the playwright has issues of class-consciousness and the strict boundaries of the social order. This contrast is captured brilliantly when the ensemble parades about as the privileged class, wearing white masks and moving like automatons. Yank wants to vent his spleen at the upper crust by going into New York City to confront them as they leave church. But no matter what he does, he has no effect on the rich folks, who blithely go about their business.
Then Yank attempts to join up with other working-class people at a trade union. But he is so aggressive that his over-the-top antagonisms make him seem like an undercover operative and he is kicked to the curb by the well-spoken secretary of the organization (Keith Kornajcik).
None of this would work as well as it does without a splendid performance by the person who plays Yank. And this production gleams in that regard thanks to a memorable and riveting turn by Joseph Milan. Whether he's sitting like the statue of "The Thinker," with his chin in hand mulling his fate, or battling physically with others, Milan's Yank is a force of nature on stage. It is, very simply, a marvelously moving performance.
In supporting roles, Rankin and Branstein craft distinct characters on board the ship, while Mary Alice Beck as Mildred's aunt manages to encompass the offensive superiority of the well-to-do with just a turned head and a sniff. And the production's ensemble — Whit Lowell, Santino Montanez, Kyle Huff, Aziz Ghrabat, Stephen Vasse-Hansell and August Scarpelli — contribute mightily to the overall atmosphere. In the role of Mildred, Brittany Ganser falls into a mechanical delivery pattern a bit too often and doesn't quite pick up the stylized vibe of the show.
These players are supported admirably by the designers. The simple set design by Walter Boswell somehow paints the pictures of these various locations with only the barest suggestions. And the lighting design by Andrew Eckert makes the ship's stokehold pulse with power and danger.
It is one of the missions of Ensemble Theatre to explore O'Neill's entire oeuvre, and they have done a fine job with most of his scripts. But none has surpassed this superb presentation of a play that speaks to the existential isolation all humans feel, stuck in the smoke-filled holds of our own lives.