Gape at the ‘Ape’

Disillusion, despair, pessimism, tragedy — we’re fairly certain no one nicknamed him “Chuckles.”

“You come to O’Neill, you know it’s going to be a workout of your emotions and your mind,” says Aaron Tuttle, who’s directing “The Hairy Ape,” one of Eugene O’Neill’s more intense indictments of the human condition, at the College of Southern Nevada’s BackStage Theatre.

“The idea O’Neill had to do this play came from him being friends with an Irish stoker (of a ship’s engines) who committed suicide by jumping off the ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. That troubled him so that he had to know why.”

Don’t expect much spillover audience from “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”

The chasm between the classes, flailing helplessly in society’s caste system and the devastating conclusion of one’s insignificance in the world are among the themes from which O’Neill wrings major misery.

Written in 1922, “The Hairy Ape” probes painful truths that, despite being partially obscured by 21st century political correctness and the empathetic Oprah-zation of the nation, still resonate as profoundly today as they did amid the blunt, crass class distinctions of the early 20th century.

“It’s one of those plays that you study in school but never see,” Tuttle says about “Ape,” which Hollywood explored in a 1944 film starring William Bendix and Susan Hayward. “There’s so many ideas in it, about the evolutionary social ladder. It’s not an uplifting play, it doesn’t offer solutions, but it does offer a look at sociology, at the way people treat each other.”

The title’s metaphorical simian is Yank (portrayed by Kris Pruett), a boisterous brute whose stunted, blinders-on view of life and self-importance flows from his position as the stoker of an ocean liner’s engines, and the physical and psychological power of propelling the massive craft. But when the rich daughter of an industrialist dismisses him as “a filthy beast,” the hurt and confused Yank jumps ship.

Arriving in Manhattan, Yank is stung by a cruel reality: No matter where he wanders, from the upper-crust lairs of the privileged (whom he attacks, earning a jail stretch) to the waterfront headquarters of labor organizers (who throw him out after his bluster convinces them he’s a spy), he fits in nowhere. Desperate to discover his place in the social strata, he finally finds his kindred spirit at the zoo — dying in the powerful embrace of a gorilla.

“He finds that he can get knowledge of the world, but that knowledge ultimately crushes him,” Pruett says. “Where do you really belong in a world that spits you out?”

Rolling cages in the set design figure prominently in Tuttle’s visual interpretation, symbolic of isolation and separation. “We build things out of metal to keep things out, like gated communities,” he says. “Or we use it to keep things in, such as prisons.”

O’Neill serves up a tossed salad of ideas in “The Hairy Ape.” As a slice of social commentary, it’s a manifesto of the oppressed working class and a condemnation of a cold capitalist system that feeds on them, an evergreen theme now in play — albeit in moderate language — in the stump speeches of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. As envisioned by the playwright, the industrial world is a degrading pit of motley humanity, juxtaposed against the superficial opulence of the wealthy.

Social Darwinism, poverty, the dehumanizing effects of technology, the falsity of the American dream — “The Hairy Ape” is a Whitman’s Sampler of societal ills.

“You can open your eyes and see this really isn’t the promised land we thought it was,” Pruett says, linking the class-system deficiencies of Yank’s universe to the heated headline debates of today. “When are we going to realize we’re all in the same boat, that we should all have things like universal health care and things that take care of us all?”

But O’Neill also tackles one of life’s most difficult realizations that some people accept with equanimity, while others resist with stubborn self-denial: Not everyone is special. Most are just one of the masses. Unremarkable. Ordinary.

Yo, Yank: In the Great Big Candy Bar of Life, you’re not the chewy caramel center.

“There’s these two beautiful scenes that take place in the same place, but in the second one, Yank realizes he’s not that special anymore,” Tuttle says. “He’s almost hiding in the corner now and doesn’t know how to deal with that.”

It’s a body blow to the soul. It’s what made this playwright a legendary chronicler of humanity’s emotional underbelly.

It’s why no one nicknamed him Shecky.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at or (702) 383-0256.

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