Theatre Mirror Reviews - "A Moon for the Misbegotten"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


"A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN"

by Eugene O’Neill
directed by Amanda Dehnert

Josie Hogan …Janice Duclos
Mike Hogan … Andy Grotelueschen
Phil Hogan … William Damkoehler
James Tyrone, Jr. … Fred Sullivan, Jr.
T. Stedman Harder … Stephen Thorne

Eugene O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is a great play --- and a good one --- but can also be viewed as the first half of a two-part saga based on Mr. O’Neill’s own tormented family, a saga that concludes with A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, the last play he completed before age, illness and tremors sealed him off from his art. James O’Neill, Jr., Mr. O’Neill’s beloved older brother/rival, died in 1923, an acute alcoholic in a sanitarium; two decades later, Mr. O’Neill led his brother’s fictitious counterpart, James Tyrone, Jr., out of JOURNEY’s bleak dawn and into the enchanted moonlight of its sequel where he finds selfless love, forgiveness and redemption in the equally fictitious arms of Josie Hogan, a virginal earth-mother posing as the neighborhood slut. Each play works independently, of course, yet audiences may wonder what is JOURNEY building up to and why doesn’t much seem to happen in MOON? But put the two together and they form a lofty peak with JOURNEY as the merciless rising action and MOON as the compassionate falling one. Has any theatre company staged both plays back to back? If not, then Trinity Repertory Company should consider throwing its hat into the ring: I missed its 1995 production of JOURNEY but recently attended its acclaimed MOON which deserves all laurels laid in its nocturnal path and offers what could be the year’s finest New England performance: Janice Duclos’ Josie, as round and glowing as the wat’ry star itself.

MOON’s 1947 world premiere never made it to New York due to charges of indecency; the posthumous 1957 Broadway production, following the Pulitzer-Prize winning JOURNEY, failed; the triumphant 1973 Broadway revival, directed by the late José Quintero and starring the late Jason Robards, Jr. and the late Colleen Dewhurst, put the play on the map and remains the yardstick against which other productions are measured. I saw the Quintero MOON when it was televised in 1975; the Dewhurst/Robards pieta haunted me for years. Ah, time! Ah, youth! This MOON, now on DVD, has lost its magic for me: the Hogan farm is a stage setting in a television studio through which the winds of Great Theatre solemnly blow (all those close-ups only expose the play’s artifice), and Ms. Dewhurst is far too mature for Josie (she was ten years older than the late Ed Flanders who plays her father); her grating voice paired with Mr. Robards’ gnarly tones takes a mighty toll on mortal ears. Mr. Robards is the surprise disappointment considering his reputation as an O’Neill interpreter: his Jim is cold, reptilian and so convincing in his final stage of alcoholism that he becomes slurred, monotonous (Mr. Robards himself was no stranger to the bottle) --- I may have wept back in ’75 but now pull away from this dark portrayal, based more on the saturnine Mr. O’Neill than on his supposedly charming, wayward brother.

The Trinity production, under the direction of Amanda Dehnert, triumphs in the long run by ignoring the Quintero yardstick. First of all, that seems to be real, tamped-down soil covering most of the playing area --- Janice Duclos, her bare feet dirty or muddy throughout, draws much of Josie’s strength from it (David Jenkin’s large, open setting nicely straddles the real and the rickety abstract). Second, the production’s tone is distinctly Irish. Mary Welch, the 1947 Josie, recalled Mr. O’Neill saying, “I want as many people as possible connected with my play to be Irish. Although the setting is New England, the dry wit, the mercurial changes of mood, and the mystic quality of the three main characters are so distinctly Irish.” I cannot vouch for how many of the Trinity team have connections to the Emerald Isle, but Ms. Dehnert satisfies much of Mr. O’Neill’s demands by punching up all of the bravura comedy hiding in plain sight (I grinned each time Josie brandished a pole, ready for battle) --- those expecting three hours of Gloom and Doom will be delighted at how their lusty laughter makes the tragedy go down all the easier --- and Ms. Dehnert knows when to stop the blarney and to pluck at the heart strings. Those “mercurial changes of mood” are fueled partly by guilt or rage; mainly by alcohol --- “mood swings” would be the more accurate term --- a typical O’Neill exchange is “A” attacks / “B” suffers or retaliates / “A” is contrite / “B” forgives / repeat cycle. These endless skirmishes --- affectionate or dead serious --- must be viewed as grinding stones used to get at the cold, hard truth that lies beneath lifetimes of lies, denials and fantasies (the longer an O’Neill play, the more the necessary stripping away) --- in MOON’s case, Josie confesses to Jim what he has longed sensed --- that she is still a virgin; Jim in turn spills his guts about his debauched behavior on a train carrying his mother’s body back from the West Coast (a recording of that old terkjerker “In the Baggage Car Ahead” is played during Intermission).

Happily, Ms. Dehnert is adept at conveying this slow but steady wearing down, and the three hours slip by without a hint of water torture (Acts Two, Three and Four are combined).

Three of Ms. Dehnert’s resident actors --- Ms. Duclos, Fred Sullivan, Jr. and William Damkoehler --- have already cut their O’Neill teeth: Ms. Duclos has played Josie for Washington, DC’s Arena Stage; the Messrs. Damkoehler and Sullivan were James Tyrone Sr. and Jr. in the 1995 JOURNEY. Of the three, Mr. Sullivan’s Jim is the weak link: his is not the “damned soul” that Josie tries to save but, rather, a tipsy playboy who has wandered into TOBACCO ROAD; his trips to the dark side, especially his near-rape of Josie, only startle from their sudden erupting out of nowhere. Mr. Robards’ Jim is an iron fist of self-hatred and hard to love; Mr. Sullivan’s Jim --- healthy, dapper, engaging --- stays happily pickled on a surface that has no rocks beneath (his vocal tone is distinctly Groucho-esque). Still, if I had to choose between cuddling a charming bad boy or a mean drunk I would choose the former and thus Mr. Sullivan wins out, even if his interpretation weakens MOON’s impact.

Since Phil Hogan, Josie’s rascally father, is onstage as much as Jim, MOON can be played as a father-daughter rustic comedy with a traveling salesman-type suitor thrown in (there is much talk of shotgun weddings, remember); the strength of Ms. Duclos and William Damkoehler’s performances reinforces this angle and is this production’s saving grace. As written, Phil Hogan is a grand old stereotype of the “Oirish” school, and Mr. Damkoehler has a grand old time a-playing him --- his Phil blusters loud and long but his heart is as sweet as the ice pond that his pigs are forever a-fouling; there is a lovely moment at play’s end when Phil and Josie resume their bickering and suddenly embrace then draw back in mutual embarrassment, which is neither in the script nor in the Quintero production; Mr. Damkoehler generously gives Ms. Duclos all the support she needs and more, for Mr. Sullivan’s Jim is so far, far away…. Whoever has cut Mr. Damkoehler’s hair for the role is to be commended: this Phil sports an uneven buzz cut with the down on the back of his neck nearly touching his shoulders --- the type of haircut his exasperated, loving daughter would subject him to when she can pin him down (no doubt, he must also be forced to bathe in the ringed bathtub that sits in residence at the pump). Andy Grotelueschen and Stephen Thorne are amusing and well-contrasted in the wee roles of the lumpish brother and the toffee-nosed neighbor.

But, again, Janice Duclos’ Josie is the crowning glory. Ms. Duclos is not the giantess that Mr. O’Neill calls for; she is of medium build and fat (her bulk becomes her “freakishness”) but she loses her fatness when she steps into the arena. Ms. Duclos is young enough, warm enough and more than pretty enough to make many a Jim turn to her for comfort, and her playing is certainly relaxed and earthy enough (as a weird sort of compliment, I can picture this Josie matter-of-factly entering from an outhouse). Apart from her physical stature, there is nothing Epic in Josie as written; the Epic lies in the heart’s journey this ordinary, overlooked woman must take as she passes from reputed Magdalene to shanty Madonna. Ms. Duclos accomplishes this by giving her Josie a shy, pure center beneath a toughened skin, a purity that no amount of dirt, slops or stagnant water can pollute --- a friendly Josie. Having found her character’s center, Ms. Duclos ladens her portrayal with countless everyday details, actions and reactions without calling attention to her how’s and why’s (she is quite convincing in her farm chores) --- in the moonlight, these details fall away as she opens up to her own truths; in the pieta, she is transcended (though still keeping both dirty feet mentally on the ground). Listen, in the coming dawn, to how Ms. Duclos intones to Mr. Damkoehler, “Shut up! I’ll do the talking now”. Mr. O’Neill’s markings for this speech are “hard and bitter”, “grimly”, “with biting scorn”, “scathingly”. Ms. Duclos, cradling Mr. Sullivan, says her lines with a quiet authority that stops Phil in his tracks --- her Josie has passed through love’s fire; since she has forgiven her lover, she can now forgive her conniving but well-meaning father. That one line reading sounds like a vast, hushed chord and is but a hair of a very, very great performance.

Very.

"A Moon for the Misbegotten" (26 September - 9 November)
TRINITY REPERTORY COMPANY
201 Washington Street, PROVIDENCE, RI
1 (401) 351-4242

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