New Moon 

Actors Bridge takes part in the recent O’Neill revival

Actors Bridge takes part in the recent O’Neill revival

On May 6, a sterling new production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night opened on Broadway, featuring Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard. This follows on the heels of well-regarded recent Broadway productions of the American master’s The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, which starred Gabriel Byrne and Cherry Jones. The work of playwrights such as O’Neill never dies, yet it’s of interest when major New York theater artists launch a period of reinvigorated interest in a dramatist of such high stature.

Locally, Actors Bridge Ensemble is doing its part to celebrate O’Neill with its own production of Moon, opening May 23 at the Darkhorse Theater, with a cast of five led by company co-founders Bill Feehely and Vali Forrister and including the excellent Joe Keenan. A Moon for the Misbegotten dates from 1943 and was O’Neill’s last completed work. It serves as somewhat of a sequel to Journey, both plays being autobiographical in nature, focusing on the Tyrones, an embattled, hard-drinking Irish American theatrical family. In Moon, Jamie Tyrone (Feehely) returns to the family farm to settle business accounts, yet he also has some emotional settling-up to do with Josie Hogan (Forrister), the daughter of farmer Phil Hogan (Keenan), who has worked the Tyrone land for years under an arrangement with Jamie’s now deceased parents. Past meets with present as the couple’s tension-filled relationship seeks some kind of resolution.

“Here we have a group of people that are constantly arguing with one another,” says director Don Griffiths. “Sometimes you don’t know if the bickering is real or if these are just people who don’t know how to say 'I love you.’ The characters play games, but there’s a certain truthfulness beneath the words.”

Feehely, who spent years as a New York actor after earning his M.F.A. at Rutgers University, is getting his first formal crack at an O’Neill script. “O’Neill is like Chekhov,” he says. “His work is the closest we have to classical American drama.”

O’Neill is known for lengthy, sprawling works that have come under criticism for their excess. Moon, for example, is written in four acts. With some adroit cutting, ABE’s production will play at about two and a half hours, a fairly modest running time in relative terms. “When they did The Iceman Cometh with Spacey,” says Feehely, “it was about five hours long. But when he went into his final monologue, you could hear a pin drop. I don’t think we’re used to being confronted with the sheer volume and depth of theater that’s American. But you have to put O’Neill in the pantheon of classic material. After all, it’s not odd for audiences to sit through three hours of Shakespeare.”

In dealing with topics such as alcoholism, family dynamics and unacknowledged interpersonal grievances, O’Neill had plenty of ground to cover; hence, economy of writing was probably a secondary concern. He also took pains to provide extensive stage directions, lest his intentions be missed by actors and directors. “I think he was bucking up against a style of acting at the time,” Feehely observes. “He was writing some deep psychological characters, and he was afraid actors would miss the subtleties.”

“It’s very difficult to learn O’Neill,” adds Keenan, who counts a production of the author’s much lighter Ah! Wilderness on his résumé. “In his dialogue, he puts the same words into your mouth three or four times in slight variations.” Keenan also quickly points out that, its angst aside, Moon still has its comic moments.

For Nashville theatergoers, this production offers an opportunity to share in the recent O’Neill upsurge, and to join with ABE in confronting the playwright’s depth of characterization and frank handling of human issues. “Look at the actors who have returned to the New York stage to do O’Neill,” Griffiths concludes, ticking off names like Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst and Jack Lemmon, in addition to the current crop of revivalists. “I think audiences want this kind of theater. It’s so realistic and earthy. And very intense.”

A Moon for the Misbegotten runs through June 7.

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