From left, James Rankin, Robert Hawkes, Stephen Vasse-Hansell and Valerie Young.

Legendary playwright Eugene O’Neill was not one to dabble in breezy romantic comedies. So it should come as no surprise that his rarely performed “Beyond the Horizon” – his first full-length play and the recipient of the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes – is a downer. Just how much of a downer, as seen in Ensemble Theatre’s current production of the work, is staggering.

Written in 1920 and set exclusively on the Mayo family farm, this heart-wrenching drama tells the tale of two close but dissimilar brothers beaten and broken by terrible luck and all the wrong choices.

The optimistic and highly pragmatic Andrew Mayo (Keith E. Stevens) was born to farm and has aspirations that travel no farther than the end of his family’s acreage. Robert Mayo (James Rankin) has a poet’s soul, a weak constitution and an insatiable wanderlust, and the play opens on the eve of his departure with his seafaring uncle (Stephen Vasse-Hansell). When Ruth Atkins, the coquettish girl next door (Emily Pucell), admits that she loves Robert and not Andrew, the brothers change their fates by changing places to pursue a life for which neither is well suited. The newly invigorated Robert stays home to run the farm with his no-nonsense father (Robert Hawkes) while the dejected Andrew sets sail for parts unknown.

It is a decision with progressively tragic consequences, and one that O’Neill has his demoralized characters recount with regularity. It is depressing enough to watch this family struggle against life’s harsh realities; it is devastating to listen to them narrate their tragedy while living it. And because they do this at every turn, it becomes a tad tedious and melodramatic by the time the play rounds the third act and heads for home.

Fortunately, the ensemble approaches this work with an understated naturalism that suppresses its soap opera tendencies and showcases some genuinely fine performances. The pain Andrew feels from his failure, the numbing pessimism that takes over Ruth’s mindset, and Robert’s physical and psychological demise are palatable.

There is nothing beyond the horizon, not for those who run away from themselves and go against their nature. These actors, under Celeste Cosentino’s superb direction, make it easy to be empathetic for characters so thoroughly pathetic.

Undermining this fine work is the use of projected imagery, designed by Ian Hinz.

More a matter of convenience than a viable artistic choice, three floor-to-ceiling screens on which fields of grain, dramatic sky scapes and the interior of a farmhouse are depicted in the background. These images help set the scene but seem woefully incongruous with the rustic wood plank flooring and plain wooden pieces of furniture that are used sparingly on stage.

The image of the farmhouse interior is also disturbingly out of proportion, as is a grotesquely giant-sized Mary (Catherine Elersich), Robert and Ruth’s young daughter, who appears on the screen rather than on stage in the few occasions when she requires her parents’ attention. Whatever the good intentions behind this decision, they fall short.

Regardless, this production is worth seeing based on the merits of a young O’Neill’s not-yet evolved, not-often heard, but still gorgeous prose and the quality of the actors speaking it.

WHAT: “Beyond the Horizon”

WHERE: Ensemble Theatre, in the former Coventry School in Cleveland Heights

WHEN: Through May 18

TICKETS: $12 - $22, 216-321-2930 or tickets@ensemble-theatre.org

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