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. 

 

 

Pericles

By Philip Pearce

PACIFIC REP’S new rendition of Pericles is a warm-hearted rambunctious delight.

Which is odd, considering the shortcomings of the script. If you stage Pericles, Prince of Tyre with Elizabethan reverence you’ll come up with a baffling, disjointed bore of a show. The hero, for no very convincing reason, spends most of the play ignoring the politics of his native city while he sails here and there, having one brief melodramatic adventure after another with a succession of Mediterranean big wigs. These sequences lack any significant dramatic link; they’re just What Happens Next. 

That includes events which the playwright repeats, much more successfully, in other plays. There’s an aristocratic girl forced to accept a husband from a lottery of applicants as in The Merchant of Venice. There are a long-lost baby daughter and a dead wife who resurrects in Act V, but less effectively than in The Winter’s Tale.  

A lot of the first half of the play is written in such a clunky style that Shakespeare scholars suspect he jotted down some scene outlines and outsourced them to be filled in with dialogue and action by an available hack named (I’m not kidding) George Wilkins. 

Emerging from the Circle Theatre after Saturday’s opening, I asked myself how PacRep has managed to transform this clutter of discouraging script problems into such a consistently entertaining show.

Well, for starters, director Kenneth Kelleher has assembled a cast of nine actors, each capable of portraying five or six eccentric characters at the flick of a lighting cue as well as singing, dancing and, in most cases, playing a musical instrument or two. 

Kelleher and this tireless ensemble refuse to disguise the fact that most of the first half of Pericles is claptrap. They emphasize it, on the grounds that anything you do with it will probably be an improvement. All the Mediterranean melodrama gets sent up—way up over the top. When nasty King Antiochus (Justin Gordon) is described as having an incestuous relationship with his daughter (Lindsey Schmeltzer) there is no doubt what is going on between the guilty pair behind D Scott McQuiston’s iambic narration. Simonides (Mike Baker) conducts his daughter’s marriage lottery like a TV host introducing nightclub acts. When Pericles (Matthew Reich or Justin Gordon) falls head over heels for the Greek Princess Thaisa (Jennifer Le Blanc) the lovers sail blissfully above the stage on overhanging lamps like wads of change in an old-fashioned department store. The birth of their daughter Marina (also Lindsey Schmeltzer) is a noisy on stage obstetric event. The action just roars and scampers along in loud, visually specific comic strip episodes.  

Kelleher and the cast accompany all the frantic action with explosions of rock or country western music which comment, usually satirically, on what’s happening at that point in the story. 

It’s in the second half of the play that Shakespeare’s text begins to take on some coherence and a bit of authentic emotion. Our hero’s beloved wife dies (apparently) in childbirth. He then chooses, with a singular lack of wisdom, to entrust their surviving infant daughter Marina (an earlier experimental sketch of Miranda in The Tempest?) to the tender care of a couple named Cleon and Dionyza (Ben Muller and River Navalle) who promptly hand the baby on to a hired killer named Leonine (Matthew Reich), whose efforts to murder the child are thwarted when a passing crew of pirates (Justin Gordon, Patrick Andrew Jones and Ben Muller) snatch her from his arms.  Marina grows older and wiser but her perils continue apace. They include capture by the staff of a failing brothel run by McQuiston and Jennifer Le Blanc. Here Marina avoids being ravished when she shames her first and only customer into a return to virtuous life and attitude.  

Everything by now is clearer if not much more believable and, with the mounting tension of Pericles’ loss of a wife and desperate search for a missing daughter, Kelleher and the cast adopt a more sincere and nuanced approach that works nicely. I particularly liked the unexpected pathos of the company joining in a wistful tribute to Pericles by singing the American folk song “I’m Just a Poor Wayfaring Stranger.”

The show has that kind of unexpected and exciting shifting of moods. Pericles is a tribute to the magic theatrical talent and imagination can perform on a work that, let’s face it, probably wouldn’t have survived the first half of the seventeenth century if its author hadn’t also written some of the supreme comedies, tragedies and romances of world history. 

Pericles continues through September 22.