A Moon for the Misbegotten

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

By Philip Pearce

JEWEL THEATRE COMPANY has just launched its fifteenth season in Santa Cruz with a brisk and moving production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. The play has comedy, it has powerful characters, it takes a meaningful look at family relationships, it touches acidly on shady farm deals, agricultural and domestic. And, with strong emotion devoid of sentimentality it affirms the power of love to transform and to heal.  

As with Shakespeare, potential playgoers have tended to approach revivals of O’Neill’s work with caution. In Strange Interlude twentieth century characters spend a daunting amount of time saying what they have to say and then more time soliloquizing about why they have just said it. Marco Millions is a lavishly mounted satire that parallels Marco Polo’s travels with the wheelings and dealings of Wall Street. But the O’Neill plays that have survived and can still draw audiences are realistic works about real people. Think of Ah Wilderness!The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten. While these scripts are made of ingredients as familiar as the plots, characters and situations of a soap opera, only O’Neill probes, organizes and illuminates with masterful power and passion.

 Moon is about a rural lass with a sharp tongue, warm heart and shady reputation. Her name is Josie Hogan and she shores up her blustering heavy drinking father Phil’s struggles to tenant a farm in Connecticut.  Its landlord is a failed alcoholic actor named James Tyrone, Jr., whom we’ve met earlier in O’Neill’s tragic masterpiece A Long Day’s Journey into Night. Half smitten, half contemptuous of this dreamy, citified visitor, cynical Josie consents to join her father in a badger game scam on the boozy, confused Tyrone. Using moonlight, flattery and bourbon, Josie will lure him off the back stoop and into her bed.  Come the dawn, Papa Phil will storm in with witnesses to snatch the covers off the guilty pair and blackmail Tyrone into reneging on a plan to sell the farm out from under the Hogans.

The moon comes up on cue, but the phony seduction unravels as James and Josie gradually face who they really are. If there’s a weak spot in the story line I found it in the fact that the success of Phil’s trick depends on Tyrone’s unshakable conviction that the local tittle-tattle about Josie is a pack of lies and that any sexual encounter with her would be the ruin of a determined virgin. It’s a plot point that strikes me as a pretty long stretch for the likes of a Broadway actor, even one as second-rate as Jamie Tyrone.

But what matters is that he and Josie both bring heavy emotional baggage to their moonlit date. He feels a punishing guilt that his drunkenness dishonored the final days of the beloved mother who has left him the farm in her will. Josie for her part harbors a pathetic dream of shaking off her reputation as the town tart by meeting a man she can love deeply. The set and props for a confidence-trick turn into the backdrop for a night where two tormented outcasts face truths about themselves and discover they are in love. 

It’s ultimately about escape and freedom. Where the cast of Long Day’s Journey seem like prisoners trapped in a house full of deceit and failure, Joy Carlin’s direction of this sequel, with its telling use of the whole performance area, and Kent Dorsey’s brilliant set both emphasize space and change and hope. In the hands of a lesser dramatist, all this concluding uplift would seem corny and banal. But O’Neill knows and exploits the complicated depths and shoals of his characters with such precision that he creates something that rings triumphantly true.

It requires expert performances and Jewel has assembled a fine cast. The versatile Diana Torres Koss is a wonderful Josie. The woman’s contempt for pretense and sentiment are always evident, but we never lose a hint of underlying femininity and desire, even before those qualities break powerfully through in the final moments of the action. Rolf Saxon’s Jamie Tyrone keeps soothing his bruised ego with little explosions of pretentious poetry and matinee idol stage business. (You want to kick him, but his tragic face and bursts of heartbreaking truth won’t let you.) Lanky, lolling and grouchy, Howard Swain is a funny, pathetic, loudly incompetent Phil Hogan. He and Jerry Lloyd as T. Stedman Harder, a pretentious, wealthy, horse-and-hounds neighbor Phil douses with pump water, provide most of the laughs in Act 1.

The sagging fortunes of the Tyrone/Hogan place are established right off the bat with the early departure of yet another disgruntled family member/unpaid employee in the person of brother Mike Hogan. Shaun Carroll plays him with a nice, lumbering irritated conviction. 

This new Moon for the Misbegotten drew a sizable opening night audience peppered with patrons like myself venerable enough to have been alive and active when O’Neill was still writing plays in Danville.   We had an evening of memorable theater and, I hope, shared a regret that there are still people around who think an O’Neill script is a minefield of high-fallutin’ classical stagecraft, significant but best honored from a safe distance.

Exorcise that demon if you hold to it by taking a trip to the Colligan on River Street between now and September 29.