A Moon for the Misbegotten
At the Writers Nichols Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Glencoe—“A Moon for the Misbegotten” is Eugene O’Neill’s sequel to his classic “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” The earlier play portrays the dysfunctional O’Neill family of Eugene’s youth during one day and night in 1912. “A Moon for the Misbegotten” moves ahead to 1923, focusing on O’Neill’s older brother, James. “A Moon for the Misbegotten” is an intimidating play for a theater company but the Writers Theatre has successfully climbed the artistic mountain. We don’t get many revivals of this play, for obvious reasons, so serious theater fans should seize the opportunity the Writers Theatre has offered them.
“A Moon for the Misbegotten” runs almost three hours with two brief intermissions. The play is primarily talk with little physical action and it can’t hide the playwright’s often cumbersome writing style. But there is powerful emotion and even broad humor in the work that will reward attentive viewing.
The play is set in and around a dilapidated farmhouse in Connecticut. The farm is operated, after a fashion, by Phil Hogan, a boozing curmudgeon who has already driven two sons away and at the beginning of the play the third is preparing to sneak off. That would leave only Josie, Phil’s daughter as the sole farm hand and general dogsbody.
The character of Josie is one of the most problematical in modern American drama. O’Neill describes here thusly: “Josie is twenty-eight. She is so oversized for a woman that she is almost a freak—five feel eleven inches in her stockings and weighs around one hundred and eighty. She is more powerful than any but an exceptionally strong man….But there is no mannish quality about her. She is all woman.”
Not many actresses endowed with those characteristics are available, but the Writers has struck gold by casting Bethany Thomas, a busy figure in Chicagoland theater, as a Josie that O’Neill would applaud. Josie is conscious of her bulk and she tries to suppress her vulnerability with a rough manner and a sharp tongue, claiming (falsely) that she has slept with half the men in the area, on her terms and what of it.
The third key character is James Tyrone, the older son from “Long Day’s Journey.” James has now fallen into dissipation, dressed well but sunk into self-disgust and disillusion, drinking his life away and consorting with the fortune-hunting hookers who prowl Broadway in New York City. James and Josie come together as a most improbable and poignant pair of lovers, the educated and bitter man and the coarse and sympathetic woman.
The play is divided into four acts. The first act includes two marginal characters, Josie’s remaining brother hastening to flee his tyrannical father and wealthy young squire neighbor who both despises and fears the crass and bullying Hogan. Once those two characters are disposed of, the odd couple love relationship between James and Josie ascends. The result is some of the most lyrical and heartbreaking writing in the entire O’Neill canon.
Tyrone is psychologically burdened by the death of his mother years before, emotionally devastated by what he sees as his role as the son who failed the saintly woman, a guilt that is driving him to an early grave. The pair exchange confidences during a moonlight-drenched night outside the Hogan shack. Finally Tyrone walks away into the dawn, not long to live and aching for the release of death as the despairing Josie watches helplessly.
In O’Neill’s script, the Hogans are a shanty Irish family. Director William Brown has cast the Phil, Josie, and the departing bother with black actors, a startling ethnic departure that surprisingly sustains the spirit of the Irish-bred original. This is not a revisionist production and the Irish language colloquialisms are retained with no credibility problems. The Writers Theatre artistic brain trust possibly thought that in A.C. Smith as Phil Hogan and Bethany Thomas he had the two best performers for the roles, and he may be right.
Jim DeVita as Tyrone joins Thomas and Smith in delivering performances of great depth, sensitivity, compassion, and humor. O’Neill gave precise and incisive descriptions of his characters in the stage directions accompanying the published script and the Writers Theatre trio has captured a satisfactory number of the playwright’s nuances and shadings.
If I had any quibble, it is with DeVita displaying a little too much self-control and not enough pain as Tyrone. The character is supposed to be drinking himself to death but DeVita seems unaffected by his liquor consumption throughout his stage time. But his emotional breakdown in the third act is stunning. In the end this may be Josie’s play. Her emotional canvas is broader and our heart goes out more to her than to Tyrone marching deliberately to his destruction. Eric Parks as the squire and Cage Sebastian Pierre as the fleeing Hogan son deliver their early cameos nicely.
Todd Rosenthal has created a thoroughly authentic farm shack and rock and weed infested yard as the frame for the intense emotions that fuel the play. Rachel Anne Healy’s costumes admirably contrast the impoverished wardrobe of the dirt farming Hogans with the natty suit of the dapper Tyrone. Jesse Klug designed the lighting and Andrew Hansen is the sound designer.
“A Moon for the Misbegotten” is a high-risk choice for any theater. O’Neill may be America’s greatest playwright but he has not been an audience favorite in recent decades, notwithstanding the occasionally successful production of “Long Days Journey into Night,” Ah, Wilderness!, “and “The Iceman Cometh.” Still, “A Moon for the Misbegotten” was triumphantly revived at the now d defunct Academy Playhouse in Lake Forest in July 1973, starring Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards, Jr., that was so successful it transferred to New York City for a solid run. The success of the production jumpstarted an upward reevaluation of O’Neill’s work. That kind of lightning may not strike again at the Writers Theatre but every patron should be impressed with the play’s heart and soul and the committed and insightful performances. Taken in that spirit the show is a must see.
The show gets a rating of
“A Moon for the Misbegotten” runs through March 18 at the Writers Theatre Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.
Contact Dan at:ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com February2018
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