Works by acclaimed American playwright Eugene O'Neill are rarely performed nowadays, a fact I think stems less from the plays' quality and more from modern audiences' affinity for action-filled theater and an inability to sit still for more than 90 minutes. Those who are interested in character-driven plot and complex characters will be rewarded by Luna Stage's engrossing production of O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, now onstage and running through May 5.
A sequel to O'Neill's masterwork Long Day's Journey into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten follows the fortunes of James Tyrone, Jr. after the death of his mother. Like his late father, Jim (as he is called in this play) is a third-rate actor trying to make it on the New York stage, but he finds himself at loose ends as he waits for to collect his inheritance, sell the family farm in Connecticut and high-tail it back to Broadway to consort with his gambler friends and his whores. His tenants, the Hogans—father Phil and his daughter Josie—are nervous about this turn of events, for although Jim has promised to sell Phil the farm, word is that he is negotiating with their neighbor, Standard Oil magnate T. Steadman Harder, who is looking to enlarge his property and wreak revenge on Hogan for tearing down the fence between their properties and allowing his pigs to foul the Harder ice pond. To prevent Jim from breaking his promise, Phil comes up with a scheme to have Josie seduce Jim and to then bring witnesses to find them in flagrant delicto, blackmailing him to sell the farm to the Hogans. To complicate matters, Josie really is in love with Jim (as he claims to be with her) and he doesn't want to take advantage of her, meaning that the ploy will not work. At the end of the play, the anguish sown by this misbegotten scheme is heart-wrenching and totally wasted.
Over the course of three hours, the schemes and counter-schemes wind and unwind, yet under the polished, steady direction of Nancy Robillard, the time seems to fly by! Charles Murdock Lucas has designed a dilapidated, broken down farmhouse with a porch and a huge rock to symbolize the boulders the land seems to produce. And the intimate black box theater arrangement at Luna Stage brings the audience in close proximity so we feel the immediacy of the situations and the emotions being expressed onstage.
As Josie Hogan, only daughter and the only sibling unable to escape the family's dreary existence and the father's slave-driving ways, Claire Warden (left with Paul Carlin as her father, Phil) earns the audience's sympathy. Tall, statuesque, her Josie comes across as a foul-mouthed and domineering, a young woman who accepts being called a "cow" by her father (she even calls herself "a great ugly cow of a woman"), a young woman with no marital prospects. Warden works dramatic magic by slowly revealing Josie's vulnerabilities, letting us see that the reputation she has for promiscuity is merely a cover for her lack of self-esteem. We don't know what will become of Josie, but by the end of the play, she has experienced love and appears able to get on wherever life leads her.
Paul Carlin is wonderfully awful as Phil Hogan, a scheming swindler who is "crooked as a corkscrew." He terrorizes the "English bastard" Harter (Kenneth Boys looking like "a spindle-shanked jockey"), calls his daughter a "great overgrown lump of a woman" and lies with abandon, all with an Irish brogue! But far from being a static character, Carlin's Phil reveals that he wanted to save Jim from drunkenness with Josie's love and admits he has been "a damned old scheming fool," giving us a chance to forgive him his awful trespasses against his child.
The role of Jim Tyrone is played by David Sedgwick (right, with Claire Warden as Josie), who does a fine job, but with his boyish look and unlined face, he lacks the debauched look of a man who has been drunk for most of his adult life, a situation that has gotten so bad that he suffers from delirium tremens (the DTs) and blackouts. Sedgwick plays up Jim's education (he spouts Latin and quotes poetry) and courtesy, asking Josie to cut the "smut stuff" and act more like a lady. He wallows in his whoring with abandon; even as he transported his mother's body across the country on a train, he paid a tramp $50 a night for sex! By the time he admits that he is emotionally dead (unable to cry. he put on an act at his mother's death and was too drunk to attend her funeral), we realize that for him and Josie, getting together is a lost cause. Had Sedgwick looked a bit older and more dissolute, his plight would have felt more tragic.
Steven Conroy is a super-pious Mike Hogan who manages to escape the farm in the opening scene. Kenneth Boys portraysT. Stedman Harder with a touch of the caricature, trembling with fear as Hogan attacks him: "It's a great day for the poor and oppressed," crows the Irishman as the Harder scurries away, afraid for his life.
Deborah Caney is to be commended for her costume design. From Hogan's dirty overalls and Josie's soiled cotton dress to Jim's spiffy three-piece suit, tie and hat, and Josie's dressy frock, we always know who these people are. John Burkland's lighting evokes the passage of time and atmosphere very well.
Demon drink is alive and well in A Moon for the Misbegotten, along with broken dreams, poor self-image and lies that beget lies ad infinitum. Eugene O'Neill's Tyrone and Hogan families are all tortured and broken, and while the play's denouement is not uplifting, there is a whiff of optimism regarding the relationship between Hogan père and daughter. It may not be much, but it is something.
A Moon for the Misbegotten will be performed at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, through May 5, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. For information and tickets, call 973.395.5551 or visit online at www.lunastage.org.
Photos by Steven Lawler.