A Moon for the Misbegotten
Presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble
Through June 7 at the Darkhorse Theater
One can never accuse Eugene O’Neill of shying away from the heavy issues. Influenced greatly by the conflicts in his own, besotted Irish American family, O’Neill had plenty of material to draw upon, and he fruitfully mined the mother lode of angst in A Moon for the Misbegotten, now being presented in a thought-provoking production by Actors Bridge Ensemble.
You don’t need to have any Irish blood to react to the range of O’Neill’s workbut it sure can’t hurt. Taken in its full scope, the Irish American experience is marked by bigotry, struggle and scrappy success. When the immigrant populations first started to arrive in the U.S., they battled class distinctions imposed upon them by the British Americans who predominantly ran the country. They inhabited large cities, lived in tenements, did menial labor and worked their way into more readily available jobs, such as firefighters and policemen. At the same time, they got into politics and made names for themselves in sports such as boxing (John L. Sullivan, et al.) and in entertainment (George M. Cohan).
The Irish have also long suffered the stigmasome would say stereotypeof alcoholism, and O’Neill, with his intensely human, epic-scale dramas, has certainly done nothing to dispel the myth. “I’m drunk,” James Tyrone Jr. says in Moon. “I’m not responsible.” These brief lines may encapsulate the play’s lead character, who is first seen in the O’Neill canon in the groaningly historic Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which shows the Tyrones, a family of frustrated theatrical performers, in cataclysmic not-so-happy times.
Things are maybe a little better for James in Moon. His parents are now deceased, and he has returned to the family farm in Connecticut, possibly to sell it off to a wealthy local landowner. Or maybe he will fulfill a promise made to farmer Phil Hogan, who has been working the rocky land for many years and has agreed to pay for the property on a piecemeal basis.
Things aren’t as simple as arithmetic or real estate, though. James has, over many years, harbored longing and love for Phil’s daughter, Josie, and the main action of this play involves how they come to grips with their personal demons and the possibility of some kind of life together. “I don’t want a decent man...they’re no fun,” Josie quips to her father. There are rumblings of decency in James, but that’s about it: He’s alcoholic, and he leads a gypsy existence that includes easy and regular alliances with prostitutes.
In tender scenes, as played by Bill Feehely and Vali Forrister, James and Josie work through their neuroses. James has a huge Madonna-whore complex, and the dialogue surrounding this elemental subject is both revelatory and acutely painful, bolstered by the constant references in the script to Josie’s “big beautiful breasts.” Here’s a man who conjures wistful, seemingly loving recollections of his mother, yet whose tragically tortured psyche can’t allow a woman into the nether reaches of his soul. Josie, referred to in the play as an “ugly cow,” has her own salient issues of self-esteem. She’s also had her share of erstwhile lovers.
There’s a lot of sadness on the stage. The Hogans’ hardscrabble existence alone conveys the ripe aroma of squalor, which is well-realized in R. Paul Gatrell’s stark gray setting. Yet there’s so much poignant psychodrama going on that one can’t help but be intrigued and affected. There are some patches of verbosityvery typical of O’Neillbut the company’s pruning of the script minimizes the chance that ennui will set in.
Director Don Griffiths proves capable enough of guiding the action, though there are times when he might effect even more realistic interplay. For all this production’s sincere encounters, it might have been exciting to see the players push the envelope even morethough certainly the company has two more weeks in which to continue getting inside this fertile material.
The principals are well cast in general terms, in particular Feehely and Joe Keenan as Hogan. Forrister’s reading is sensitive and smart, and she wrings a good deal of honest emotion out of her role. More problematic are the script’s continual references to her physicality. To be “big breasted” and “ugly,” Forrister has to stretch, and one is left with the feeling that she hasn’t quite achieved the level of earthy sexuality ascribed to her character. David Barry does well in a brief bit as Hogan’s son Mike. Chad Daniel also appears in a cameo as the landowner Harder, but he seems too young for the part.
On balance, this is a worthy and hard-fought treatment of a serious American classic, one that just might propel the viewer into the nearest pubto grab a drink and to mull over all its essential humanity.
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