This fine production of Eugene O’Neill’s last play was planned as a co-production with the Theatre Royal of Waterford Ireland and played there first. Geva’s artistic director, Mark Cuddy, has negotiated artistic exchanges with Ireland’s leading theaters for more than twelve years since his sabbatical year there, and made this choice with Ben Barnes, now director of the ancient Theatre Royal, and previously director of Ireland’s famed Abbey Theatre. It is a play with only five characters and basically a single setting, but it’s on my “NFA List” [Not For Amateurs]: rich, haunting, debatable, truly meaningful, funny, tragic, humane, and heartbreakingly beautiful. xxxxx
O’Neill said that it was his favorite play. He had earlier treated his conflicting love/hate relationship with his older brother, James O’Neill Jr., in shorter plays and unforgettably in his autobiographical masterpiece, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night “ (where Edmund Tyrone = Eugene, and Jamie = James Jr.]. In that tragedy their relationship is almost too painful to watch. This is Jamie’s play.
Actually, Mrs. O’Neill did break her dope addiction but weakened and died thereafter, James Jr, having given up his ambitions to care for her, often relapsed into alcoholism and – after the shock of her death – virtually gave up and killed himself with neglect and debauchery.
The plot of “A Moon for the Misbegotten” is basically a two-day expansion of a comic anecdote from “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” The family is amused to hear that a feisty tenant on their property had been breaking the fence that separated his little farmhouse from the adjourning rolling lawns of a millionaire oil tycoon and letting his pigs wallow in the pond which was the source of the neighbor’s drinking water. The millionaire came on their property to upbraid them and threaten to jail the tenant and shoot his pigs, and the tenant and his large, fierce daughter had beat and driven the man and his servant off their rented land. It’s a short bit of comic relief. But here we see James Tyrone hiding in the tenants’ house, then joining them in celebration. James O’Neill Jr. did have a relationship with a young woman who lived in that shack with the pig-owner, and was apparently somewhat loose-living but was briefly a comfort for the lonely James Jr. after his mother died. Here, O’Neill makes her a large, awkward virgin who pretends to be a “trollop” and truly loves Jamie. And he makes her the pig-farmer, Hogan’s, daughter Josie. We see the comic encounter and then see James return to spend the night innocently in Josie’s arms. In short, O‘Neill gives his brother a comforting, loving farewell.
Left: Michael Quinlan (T. Stedman Harder), Mark Lambert (Phil Hogan)
The next morning brings a relieving return to comedy. All the bleak moonlit confessions and complaints of hopelessness, guilt and anguish are forgotten in the warm sun of a new day and a return to banter. At the very end, her father, Hogan, storms into the house and Josie takes a last look down the road and ends the play: “(Her face sad, tender and pitying–gently): May you have your wish and die in your sleep soon, Jim darling. May you rest forever in forgiveness and peace.” It is the playwright’s prayer for his dead brother. And it can break your heart.
Right: Kate Forbes (Josie Hogan), Augustus Cudy (Mike Hogan)
This production, built by Geva’s technical staff, is the Irish one, and the little shack is transformed into a peculiarly imposing barnlike structure with the porch and front door facing stage-left and a kind of haunted moonlit view above-left. The small role of Josie’s disgruntled brother Mike – the last to run away from farmer Hogan — is played with comic grudging energy by Augustus Cuddy, Geva’s artistic director, Mark Cuddy’s son, whom we haven’t seen in a decade and were pleased to find now a large handsome, commanding actor.
Left: Mark Lambert (Phil Hogan)
Mark Lambert, known to many as a leading Irish actor, is wry, amusing, and affecting as the drunken Phil Hogan. Michael Quinlin gives a sly, controlled comic characterization of the foolish millionaire, T. Stedman Harder. And Donald Sage MacKay, a well-known, accomplished American actor, is amusing and at times moving as the self-loathing, almost-distraught James Tyrone Jr. But I thought his James could have had more depth and variety. Kate Forbes is shorter in stature than most ‘Josies’ I’ve seen, but she gives a beautifully evolving performance, originally spunky and comically awkward, that opens and grows into a self-recognition that is saddening, then responsively stronger and out-reaching, and finally selflessly, generous and loving enough to enchant everyone in the theater. As far as I’m concerned she is winning enough alone to make this a fine revival.
By Herbert Simpson, Contributing Writer
A Moon for the Misbegotten (Total Rating: **** out of 4)
Geva Theater Center – Mainstage
75 Woodbury Boulevard
Cast: Augustus Cuddy, Kate Forbes, Mark Lambert, Donald Sage Mackay, Michael Quinla
Scenic & Costume Designer: Joe Vanek
Lighting Designer: Ann G. Wrightson
Original Music and Sound Designer: Lindsay Jones
Dramaturg: Jennie Werner
Director: Ben Barnes