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BWW Reviews: A Somewhat MISBEGOTTEN Moon at Heritage-O'Neill

A Moon for the Misbegotten (1947), Eugene O'Neill's last play, is a great challenge, both to stage and to watch.  Four long acts long, with casting challenges, bedeviled by attitudes modern audiences likely will not share, and, it must be said, self-indulgent as regards some of O'Neill's great weaknesses, it requires more than most companies and audiences can summon to put it across successfully.  I say "successfully" but perhaps "successfully as possible" might be the more accurate phrase.  Washington's Heritage-O'Neill Theatre Company's current production partly but not fully meets these challenges.

Heritage-O'Neill, of which I had not known before being invited to review Moon, has chosen to focus on the works of American Playwrights from the 1920s to the end of the 20th Century, viewing their plays as a heritage of classics, at the forefront of which stand the works that flowed from Eugene O'Neill's prolific pen (49 plays).  One can only applaud the company's dedication to its mission, but with a sense of its arduousness and frequent thanklessness.

Briefly, Moon takes us through one September 1923 day and succeeding night in the death of Jamie Tyrone, Jr., (Sean Coe), the alcoholic and self-destructive older brother of the playwright's alter ego most audiences know from the more-frequently produced Long Day's Journey Into Night.  Jamie is killing himself with drink and regret, staggering from the wounds inflicted by the dysfunction in his family of origin: a terrible, domineering actor father and a beloved mother from the shock of whose death Jamie cannot recover.  Seeking solace for but one night, he wanders onto the Connecticut farm of tenant farmer Phil Hogan (Dexter Hamlett) and his daughter Josie (Lisa Hodsoll) to rest in her arms (not her bed) for that one night.

To buy into this, the audience must subscribe to a series of notions that will not come easy today.  Chief among these is that when these two, Jamie and Josie, have declared their love for each other and had their one chaste night together (despite obvious physical passion), it is meet and fitting that they go their separate ways so Jamie can get on with the business of dying.  It seems like unearned sadness, not called for by the possibilities open to the characters if they really cared about each other as they say they do.  (Although, when you look at the doom-laden circumstances of O'Neill's family as he wrote the play, you can see where he was coming from.)

There are other difficult things to swallow, for instance the idea (not current since about 1965) that a woman's virginity gives her value while a man's promiscuity does not devalue him.  The question of Josie's sexual history is much bruited about in these proceedings, and its resolution is key to how we are supposed to view her, while Jamie's doings with "Broadway whores" and a blonde prostitute on a train are meant to inspire nothing more than a sense of wasted emotional potential.  You have to set your teeth and make allowance for such attitudes, just as you must place great store by sexual jealousy when watching much opera, grand or light.

What may be the hardest thing for a modern audience to take, however, is O'Neill's penchant for playing every scene every possible way.  Among the three central characters, Josie, Jamie, and Phil, there are secrets and lies galore.  So you, as a playwright can write each scene with characters deceived and/or pretending to be deceived, and then undeceived or acknowledging that they had never been deceived.  You can thus play each scene with characters drunk or sober or sober pretending to be drunk, hungover and not remembering, or hungover but remembering.  Effectively each character can become multiple characters, enabling a playwright to run a scene with one alignment of honesty, sobriety, and recollection, then, when it reaches its emotional climax, resetting the scene and doing it all over again with a different alignment, which you can then play out to its climax again.  And again.  And that is how you can expand what could be a relatively simple and direct story out to four acts.  But it can seem, and often be, a mere contrivance, and a modern audience, weaned on jump-cut cinema, may not want to go along for such a ride.

If you, as a company, are going to try to drag the audience along, you want a cast that makes the work sizzle, that gets viewers past the longeurs and the contrivances.  They need to be credible as members of the Irish-American diaspora (O'Neill insisted that the principal roles be cast exclusively with actors with Irish roots), and they have to animate certain abstract concepts as well. 

The toughest role to cast is likely to be Josie.  O'Neill's casting directions called for her to be "so oversize that she is almost a freak -- five feet eleven in her stockings and weighs around one hundred and eighty. Her sloping shoulders are broad, her chest deep with large, firm breasts, her waist wide but slender by contrast with her hips and thighs. She has long smooth arms, immensely strong, although no muscles show. The same is true of her legs. . . . She is all woman. . . . The map of Ireland is stamped on her face." These Earth Mother characteristics are almost impossible to locate among professional actresses. Laurence Lagner wrote in 1952, betraying attitudes redolent of that era as well as an appreciation of the realities, that the role calls for "exactly the kind of woman who, when she comes to see you and asks whether she should attempt a career in the theatre-you look embarrassed and reply, 'Well, I'm afraid you're rather a big girl-how are we to find a man tall enough to play opposite you?'"  It may in fact be argued that Josie is so much an abstract concept that a perfect embodiment of her is impossible.

This production "kicks against the pricks" in casting those roles, with the exception of Sean Coe, who looks as if he could be the kind of character the script calls for.  The program notes by director Karey Faulkner say: "Our 'Josie' in not "an Amazon" or a "big ugly cow" of a woman.  In fact, it is only SHE who sees herself in that way."  While actress Lisa Hodsoll is hardly petite, she does not look like what O'Neill's casting notes described, nor what she and the other characters describe her as looking like.  With Hodsoll, it does not seem to matter.  She fully inhabits the character, and keeps her credible and magnetic.  And she sounds Irish.  Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Dexter Hamlett as her father.  This is what they call unconventional casting: Hamlett is African American, and, while he makes faint stabs at an Irish accent, he does not carry them far.  I'm sorry, but the accent matters.  In all of O'Neill's plays about Irish Americans that I know, accent matters.  (When, in A Touch of the Poet, for instance, Con Melody slides back into his native brogue from an assumed and affected British accent it represents a change in his character.)  If the character of Josie, second-generation American at least, has a thick accent, how does her father not have one?  Nor do the generational dynamics, which have so much to do with how Phil and Josie interact and who they are, work properly when the father seems to be about the same age as his daughter.  Where was makeup?

The acid test of how well it all works is whether at the final fadeout, which presents Josie staring after the departed Jamie, wishing him godspeed with his mission of leaving this world, we are emotionally wrung out from having witnessed the somehow appropriate shared climactic moment of their two lives, or just wrung out from too much of O'Neill's contrivance.  And it seems likely that the directorial and casting choices will have had a lot to do with which kind of wrung out one is.  This production left me somewhere in between.

One very much wants to see Heritage-ONeill succeed with its worthy mission, which I hope to come back and check up on again.  Unfortunately, this production of Moon may not contribute much to that success.

A Moon for the Misbegotten, by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Kasey Faulkner, through October 22.  The Heritage-O'Neill Theatre Company, The Randolph Road Theatre, 4010 Randolph Road, Silver Spring, MD 20909,  Tickets $20-$30.


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