The Hairy Ape, written by Eugene O’Neill and directed at Spotlighters Theatre by Sherrionne Brown, is a testament to the human condition. Written in 1922, this expressionist play is about a man that works in the stokehold of an ocean liner who begins to question his position in society when an upper class woman, on a quest to see how the other half lives, sees him cursing out an engineer and refers to him as a “filthy beast.”
The play begins with the cacophony of men drinking and fighting. Lighting Designer Al Ramer chooses to bring us in and out of darkness at intervals, giving an appropriately impressionistic view of the men. The lines are, purposefully, delivered lightning-quick so as to cause the characters to blur. They begin to emerge as singular entities over the course of this first scene. Brown, in addition to directing, is also the Set Designer. We see these rough stokers surrounded by four columns painted in the Art Deco style, evoking the age in which they existed. In the far corners, there is a painting of the New York City skyline and Rodin’s The Thinker.
The content of this play is layered and heavy, but Michael Leicht’s performance of Yank is absolutely stunning. From the moment the play starts, Leicht commits completely to the role. A very muscular man, he is able to embody both the brutish and questioning nature of the character with conviction. Tears streamed down his face during a monologue near the end of the play and he, at times, shook with repressed rage when interrogating the other characters about why he must be who he is since he is made of the same stuff as everyone else. Yank is a character that describes himself as “the thing in coal that makes it burn,” and that is who Leicht delivers to the audience.
The accents in this play are spot-on. There are Irish, Italians, English, among others, whom you would have found in early twentieth century New York. Thomas Eric Sinn who takes on many roles in this play, as do the majority of the actors, is a convincingly nostalgic Paddy. The early scenes, where he argues with Yank about the nature of the steel empire that they have been consumed by, act as the perfect foil for Yank’s later questioning of the meaning of his life in the context of being working class. Yank is an outsider among the stokers as he embraces the work wholeheartedly, revering it as something necessary to keep the upper classes, whom he considers to be “baggage,” moving.
Karen Starliper plays Mildred, the wealthy daughter of a steel magnate who fancies herself a social worker. In an interesting conversation with her aunt, played by Julie Press, she says that she can’t help the position she was born in to and desires to see what life is like for those less fortunate. While she may have good intentions, the woman is like many in the upper class of that time and even today. For all our groping efforts at integrity, we can’t seem to separate our view of ourselves as humans from the circumstances of our birth. Both women inhabit these roles with flair.
Phil Gallagher portrays Long, who takes Yank to Fifth Avenue to muse on how the wealthy are oppressing the working class after Yank’s incident in the stokehold with Mildred, which has begun to seep in to Yank’s consciousness as equating his behavior with that of a hairy ape. Yank does not fit in here, either. He is beaten by the police and sent to jail. The scene of his imprisonment is particularly well done in the way it’s set. The use of the entire stage, as well as the use of the entrances and exits, makes for a uniquely immersive experience in this theater-in-the-round. Sherrionne Brown was not shy with placing the actors very close to the audience, but you’ll never feel like there is a bad view.
We then follow Yank to the International Workers of the World offices, where he comes to see if Long’s queries about class consciousness have any merit. Daniel Douek plays a secretary who, at first, welcomes Yank in to the organization. However, Yank proves to be too radical in this setting and things take a turn for the worst. Again, he is branded as an outsider. He moves on from here to his penultimate encounter with a literal ape at the zoo.
Costuming is credited to a number of entities: Sherrionne Brown, House of Bankerd, Fuzz Roark, Pheliz Blais-Evers, and the cast. The stokers were appropriately grimy in their attire, while the wealthy were over-the-top. There was an edge of runway to the Fifth Avenue crowd that invited scorn. It was especially apparent when one of them, having come from church, mentions that “Doctor Caiaphas” had given an enlightening sermon. You can see the brilliance of this play in the small details, as O’Neill takes a swipe at the wealthy by comparing their priest to the high priest who is attributed with having a hand in the plot to kill Jesus in the New Testament. Spotlighters leans in to these elements.
Stunning performances abound in this well-balanced production which speaks to our own time as much as it does to the past. Socialism and capitalism, wealth and poverty, working class and upper class all collide in a show triumphantly delivering a complex story that, intentionally, offers us no answers at all. Spotlighters Theatre’s The Hairy Ape is a great introduction to Eugene O’Neill and I highly recommend it because aren’t we all, essentially, just hairy apes trying to find our place in the world?
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.