Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Hairy Ape
Ronin Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of True West and Fiddler on the Roof

Logan Watters (center) and Cast
Photo courtesy of Ronin Theatre Company
Eugene O'Neill's powerful drama The Hairy Ape is a scathing portrait of the conflict among the classes and a searing depiction of the reality of how the working class can never rise to the top because they aren't in power. It centers around Yank, a macho coal stoker working on a transatlantic ocean liner who has a run-in with a rich socialite. With a passionate cast, Ronin Theatre Company's production is as raw, angry, rebellious and aggressive as Yank.

The plot is fairly simple. Set in 1922, the story begins aboard an ocean liner bound for New York City. When wealthy socialite passenger Mildred Douglas, who is the daughter of the chairman of the sailing line, says she wants to see how the other half lives, she ventures down into the engine room. Frightened by the dirty, sweaty and larger-than-life Yank, she calls him a "filthy beast" and faints. This encounter bolsters in Yank the desire to lash out at the wealthy class while also giving him the drive to find his place in the world and search for a sense of belonging.

O'Neill is famous for winning four Pulitzer Prizes and writing dozens of plays, including Long Day's Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, Anna Christie, Ah, Wilderness!, and Desire Under the Elms. However, his plays seem to not be produced as frequently as they should, and this is the first time I've ever had the chance to see The Hairy Ape. Perhaps the reason this O'Neill drama is rarely presented is due to its simple plot and the fact that, besides Yank, most of the characters disappear by the second half; Mildred Douglas is only in two scenes. There are also many monologues in the piece that are delivered directly to the audience. They are eloquent and passionate at times, but they still create a presentational feel in the play. O'Neill also writes Yank as a brutish, angry and unsympathetic anti-hero that doesn't exactly give the audience much to root for and his dialogue and the themes he presents are anything but subtle.

Fortunately, director Skip Emerson has wisely chosen to use an ensemble of seven actors to play all of the parts. This gives a fantastic energy and raw feeling to the play as well as a connectivity between the classes in how the ensemble members morph between playing members of both the upper and working classes as well as a group of caged apes that Yank encounters at the zoo. Emerson's staging on the minimal set is also fresh and engaging, with the ensemble moving around the audience as well as leaping around the stage and the audience at times in a manner resembling the title animal.

As Yank, who starts off feeling like he's the powerful leader of the working class and the true owner of the ship since he and his fellow stokers are the reason it moves, but spirals downward once he encounters Mildred and realizes that he actually has no power at all, Logan Watters brings a loud, eager and raw sensibility. While Watters begins the show shouting his lines, as a way to depict Yank's macho, powerful and intimidating persona, and continues to do so throughout, which can be hard at times to fully understand what he's saying, once Yank's world begins to shatter around him, Watters manages to depict Yank's emotional realization that he's actually powerless and alone.

The ensemble all do good work, including Antoinette Martin-Hanson as the conceited and snobbish Mildred, and Carlin Thomas as the wise, older Irishman, Paddy. Michael Bundy II, Ty Hainlen, Jason Hall, and Seth Scott round out the cast with each creating crisp portrayals. Emerson finds ways to use the ensemble quite effectively throughout, several times creating impressive stage images–there are two toward the end of the play that are especially memorable. Emerson also has Watters and the cast speak directly to individuals in the audience during several of the monologues as a way to draw us in and have us connect to Yank's plight.

While The Hairy Ape may lack subtlety, and the themes presented are ones we've seen in countless other plays, films, and TV shows, O'Neill's language is expressive and his characters are realistic. For a play that's over 100 years old, it may not have aged well or have the same raw excitement I imagine it generated when it first premiered, but it still manages to be engaging and exciting in Ronin Theatre Company's production.

The Hairy Ape, from Ronin Theatre Company, runs through June 2, 2024, at the Irish Cultural Center, 1106 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit

Director: Skip Emerson
Technical Director: Nicole Thompson
Assistant Director: Cody Goulder

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Bob “Yank” Smith: Logan Watters
Mildred Douglas: Antoinette Martin-Hanson
Secretary, Ensemble: Michael Bundy II
Prisoner, Ensemble: Ty Hainlen
Aunt, Ensemble: Jason Hall
Long, Ensemble: Seth Scott
Paddy, Ensemble: Carlin Thomas