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BWW REVIEW: Audra McDonald Dominates WTF's A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN

Written by Eugene O'Neill; directed by Gordon Edelstein; original scenic design by Ming Cho Lee restored and adapted by Lee Savage; costume design, Jane Greenwood; lighting design, Jennifer Tipton; sound design, John Gromada; wig design, Tom Watson; fight director, Thomas Schall

Cast in Order of Appearance:

Josie Hogan, Audra McDonald; Mike Hogan, Howard W. Overshown; Phil Hogan, Glynn Turman; James Tyrone, Will Swenson; T. Stedman Harder, Aaron Costa Ganis

Performances and Tickets:

Now through August 23, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Mainstage, '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, Mass.; tickets are available online at www.wtfestival.org or by calling the Box Office at 413-597-3400.

There's no mistaking who's in charge in the Williamstown Theatre Festival's crackling production of A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN now running through August 23. As Eugene O'Neill's indomitable heroine Josie Hogan, six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald stomps, kicks, shoves and brandishes a big stick as she asserts her dominance over her father Phil (Glynn Turman), her landlord and wannabe love interest James Tyrone (Will Swenson), and anyone else who gets in her way.

McDonald and director Gordon Edelstein have taken to heart O'Neill's description of his beleaguered heroine as a tough-talking Amazonian-like woman, filling her with so much rough-hewn bluster that we almost believe this natural beauty could actually be repugnant to men. What's more important is that Josie believes it, since her negative self-image fuels everything she does. Not fit for marriage and the financial security that comes with it? Then, much like her scheming father, she'll just use her considerable wiles to extort what she wants and needs from her victims. Insecure in her physical attractiveness? Then she'll just build herself a reputation as a wanton woman, one who sleeps with men, then discards them, with no strings and on her own terms.

For the most part McDonald is very convincing as the hulking hardscrabble tenant farmer's daughter who took over the reigns as the surrogate wife and mother to three brothers when her own mother died in childbirth with Mike (Howard W. Overshown). Now an adult scratching out a living with her father and Mike on a dusty, rock-strewn Connecticut farm in 1923, Josie is determined to have her youngest sibling join her other brothers in pursuing more promising careers in the city. At rise we see Josie booting young Mike from the nest, sending him away to school with money she has stolen from their father. However, when said father appears for the reckoning, it is Josie who makes Phil cower and not vice versa. Swearing, insulting, and threatening him with a bat, McDonald's Josie asserts in no uncertain terms that she rules the roost and runs the show.

In a smart bit of staging, Edelstein keeps McDonald moving throughout her early scenes. When she's not rinsing vegetables in a trough she's wielding a plumber's wrench to fix a water pump. When she's arguing heatedly with her father, she's vigorously sweeping actual dirt from her bedroom floor and the steps that lead to it. This non-stop multi-tasking makes it clear that Phil may talk the talk but Josie walks the walk. She may cook, clean and sew, but she also tends the fields and mends the fences. The survival of her farm and her family rests squarely on her ample shoulders, and the way McDonald physically squares those shoulders makes them seem ample, indeed.

The chemistry between McDonald and Turman as her oft-drunk father is sizzling. Their rapid-fire banter and easy rapport bring more humor to the first act of A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN than one remembers. As they bully and rail at each other, they are like two peas in a pod. When together they hatch a scheme to fleece Tyrone of $10,000 so that they can purchase their farm outright and prevent it from being sold out from under them, we see that Josie is unquestionably a chip off the old block.

But Josie has a mixed agenda when it comes to James Tyrone. Yes, she wants to secure her farm and her future once and for all, but she also has feelings for her landlord, drunk and despicable though he may be. For Josie and Tyrone aren't so very different when it comes to their inner demons. They both try to hide from their own realities by creating and clinging to illusions. Tyrone, mourning the recent death of his mother, seeks refuge in a bottle. Josie, convinced she is unlovable, deflects pain with an armor of false bravado. When Tyrone suddenly returns to town to settle his mother's estate, their conflicting desires for "one night under the moon that's difference from the rest" erupt in an agonizing baring of souls. Tyrone confesses a shame that has haunted him since his mother's death, and Josie lets down her defenses to, for one night, be the delicate woman Tyrone needs her to be.

It is here where this A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN stumbles. One would think that the chemistry between real-life husband and wife McDonald and Swenson would be palpable. But even when Josie needs to be her most vulnerable McDonald is still so strong that she overpowers Swenson's melancholy Tyrone. Swenson handles his character's despair and self-loathing deeply and convincingly, but he doesn't give his second tier New York actor enough flair or boyish charm to make Josie/McDonald's attraction to him believable. When Tyrone, in a drunken stupor induced by Josie as a means to lure him into her bed for the purposes of blackmail, mistakes her for one of his "Broadway tarts," McDonald practically kicks Swenson through the scenery. Seconds later she appears to forgive and forget. Certainly part of Josie's reasoning is to keep Tyrone dangling so that she can complete the scam. But there is a part of Josie that also loves Tyrone, and McDonald is simply too strong a force to make Josie's desperation seem real.

While there is a whiff of a contemporary woman in McDonald's Josie, Lee Savage's adaptation of Ming Cho Lee's original Broadway set roots this A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN squarely in the pre-Depression Era. A two-room barn board shanty is perched atop a barren hard-packed hill of dirt, rocks, and sun-scorched vegetation. A barbed wire fence is visible against a backdrop of partly cloudy skies. A working water pump lends realism to the hardscrabble lives of the farm's tenants and its trough full of water offers opportunities for both utilitarian and playful stage business.

Jane Greenwood's period costumes are spot on, with Swenson's shiny maroon suit and fedora hat hinting at better days for the once flamboyant actor. She gives McDonald a Cinderella-like transformation in Act II, changing her from a dusty workaday sheath and boots into a beautiful blue dress and heels. The effect adds immensely to Josie's sadness as she sits on her steps forlornly, awaiting the arrival of her wastrel Prince Charming who is two hours (and five minutes) late for their date in the summer moonlight.

Jennifer Tipton's moody lighting suggests sweltering heat by day and warm moonlit breezes by night. Incidental music by sound designer John Gromada is at once haunting, melancholy and romantic.

Any time one is given the chance to see the formidable Audra McDonald in action one should seize the opportunity and revel in it. Even when she isn't quite right for a role, she is a force to be reckoned with. Here that force, unfortunately, pushes Williamstown's A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN a bit off kilter.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL: Audra McDonald as Josie Hogan; Audra McDonald and Will Swenson as James Tyrone, Jr.; Glynn Turman as Phil Hogan; Glynn Turman, Audra McDonald and Will Swenson; Will Swenson and Audra McDonald; Will Swenson and Audra McDonald; Audra McDonald


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