A Moon for the Misbegotten, by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Gordon Edelstein. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Glynn Turman, Audra McDonald, Will Swenson; photo: T. Charles Erickson
"We've agreed there's only tonight...and it's to be different from any past night..."
Audra McDonald as Josie Hogan; photo: T. Charles Erickson
In 1939 after more than half a decade of silence Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist Eugene O'Neill began writing again. He abandoned a play, "More Stately Mansions," revised a play "A Touch of the Poet, and wrote a short cycle of plays about his own family that included "Long Day's Journey Into Night," and "A Moon for the Misbegotten." These were difficult works for him and he couldn't see them properly produced in his own lifetime. After an aborted production of "Moon. . ." he never saw another new work of his own on the stage again.
It took a long time for this play to come to success. After that original trial starring Mary Welch and James Dunn (1947), a 1950's production starring Wendy Hiller and Franchot Tone didn't make the grade and it wasn't until 1973 that Broadway finally saw the play in a very successful production starring Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards, Jr.
The play dealt with tenant farmers on land in Connecticut owned by Jamie Tyrone. The Hogans are lace curtain Irish without the cash for the lace curtains, dependent on the indulgences of their landlord. Josie, the daughter, has helped her brothers move on to big cities and careers in law enforcement and she does the same for her youngest brother Mike at the start of Act One. Fearing that their farm is going to be sold to a mean, cheap soul named T. Stedman Harder, who has a yen for Josie, Phil Hogan plots to create a scandal involving his daughter and Jamie but the plot backfires and the two old friends fall in love instead. The power of a moon meant to entrance the misbegotten souls who flail about seeking redemption carries the plot into obscurity.
At the Williamstown Theatre Festival in a "reimagined" edition, as they like to call this production, a fabulous cast takes on these characters and creates a memorable evening of theater. "Reimagined" means simply that the Hogan family are now Black and not Irish. Still set in 1923, a time when prohibition reigned over the land, the hard drinking of bourbon whiskey is just what it was in all of the earlier versions of the play. The relationships are just what they were as well. The only real change is the racial element having changed from lower class Irish to lower class Black. This has come about so that Audra McDonald can play Josie in an honest way, without asking the audience to imagine she is anything other than what and who she is. It works, by the way, in the best way possible.
McDonald is incredible in this role. Her history in the theater is a remarkable one, winning six Tony Awards, one for each major play she has performed, musical or dramatic. Here, in O'Neill's most lovely female role, she shows exactly why that is so. In spite of a sound difficulty opening night which rendered many of her lines in the first half inaudible, she creates a character that is both credible and loveable. Josie as she performs the part is a woman on the verge of becoming obsolete. She has given her brothers freedom, pledged herself to protect and care for her father and is lost in a love that she knows cannot be fulfilled. Her future is limited and she uses herself in ways that would cripple a weaker woman. McDonald shows us the weariness in this woman. She opens her up for inspection and stands proudly behind her choices. Josie is large, nearly thirty, and dominates her world. McDonald is older, not that big physically although she is tall and broad, and she controls the property on which she stands. Not even a large boulder can diminish her as they stand side by side. McDonald's Josie is oversized in all the best ways.
Clearly her equal in most ways McDonald's own husband Will Swenson plays her love interest, Jamie Tyrone. Swenson has one of those baritone voices that cuts through your ear to your heart and your guts and is enthralling and as his lines are often sheer poetry he brings to the play the reality of a family of theater-folks who produced this man. In "Long Day's Journey..." James Tyrone is the son of a great American actor who can never do anything but act. The older brother of a man who represents O'Neill himself, Jamie is bitter and difficult, a drunk and a dissipated soul. That same character is the one we have in this play and Swenson gets to the grittier elements of Jamie and allows us to feel his pain. His love scenes with McDonald's Josie have an exquisite sense of passion to them which aids the play immensely.
Glynn Turman plays Phil, Josie's father, and he is splendid. He takes the formerly Irish inflection in the dialogue and makes it read just right for his appearance, a northern Black man with land but little education. He takes on the bluster and anger, the neediness and the fear of his own daughter with accuracy and inspiration. His son Mike is played well in his brief scene by Howard W. Overshown. Again the actor has the good luck to play his one moment of the play with McDonald who brings a terrific reality to their relationship.
Aaron Costa Ganis is delightful as the jodhpurred upper class Harder. Also with only a single scene to play he makes quite an impression in a "reimagined" departure from the Hogan farm. Director Gordon Edelstein is responsible for this new factor in the play and it works wonderfully.
In fact every choice made by Edelstein that takes the play out of its original form and into something new is absolutely right for this version. He has developed his characters shrewdly and his actors have given him what he has asked of them. There is never a moment where anyone can question the decisions that factor into this production.
Ming Cho Lee's set concept, as realized by Lee Savage is ideally theatrical and works to the advantage of the play. Jane Greenwood's costumes are excellent, not mired in period but in place and personality. Jennifer Tipton's lighting of the play is sensitive and luscious. John Gromada's sound design (with the exception of the audible problem noted above) adds sparkle and humanity in its music. Thomas Schall has handled the fight choreography so well that every movement feels natural and right. Technically the show is as fine as the acting.
Eugene O'Neill would probably object to the racial alteration but he would acquiesce once he saw McDonald and Turman in their respective roles. The faithfulness to the ideas in the play make this an excellent representation of the author's intentions. There are no really awkward moments and even if the plotting against Jamie by Phil Hogan takes on a momentary sense of slur it is not a lasting impression as things progress. Nor does it change much about the characters. Instead it is an added element for the characters to consider which they only do briefly. Outside of that the play is wonderfully well realized by this company and so very worthwhile seeing.
Glynn Turman as Phil Hogan; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Will Swenson and Audra McDonald; photo: T. Charles Erickson
A Moon for the Misbegottenplays at the '62 Center for the Theatre and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through August 23. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line at wtfestival.org.